For the local TV anchors: Please resolve to stop conflating “mall” with “shopping.” I can’t count how many times chirpy unreflective anchor people would say “what’s the weather going to be like for everyone heading out to the mall for that last minute shopping?” One can shop in places other than the mall….downtown for example. I swore off Tysons Corner back when I had a car after suffering a Sartre-esque bout of existential nausea one Christmas. And that was it. Never went back. Never wanted to. Never needed to. Georgetown, innumerable stops on Connecticut Ave all the way up, Gallery Place, Columbia Heights, Eastern Market, all offer plenty of things, usual and unusual, for purchase. And it’s so much more interesting! When all else fails, order on-line.
Another one for the media: Please resolve to acquire a critically reflective editor to eliminate the "exquisite corpse" sequencing of stories. Best not to follow a story on how Americans are to blame for not buying enough cars with a traffic report showing a back up near the proverbial Occoquan. It begs for ironic commentary. Looks like we have plenty of cars. Maybe that’s why we’re not buying them? And don’t follow stories on the environment with a “human interest” story on an ice skating rink in southern California where people skate in bikinis. Those crazy Californians. Aren’t they something out west? It’s obscene. Where’s the FCC when you need it?
For planners and politicians: No more iatrogenic solutions to environmental problems! Adding lanes to highways does not cure traffic congestion, but causes it. Building houses one per 5 acre parcel does not preserve open space, but consumes it. Ethanol…well, just watch Frontline’s episode, Heat.
And for me? I have the usual set of resolutions involving weight maintenance, flossing, being a better person, et al., but I have a few new green ones to focus on. Pay better attention to where stuff—food, energy, clothes-- comes from. What regime am I inadvertently supporting with my purchase? Have I contributed to the removal of a mountaintop just to light my living room? Do I really need strawberries in the winter? Also, make regular use of those SmartBikes. They’re so convenient and so inexpensive and only burn calories (see weight maintenance above). Finally, keep the sarcasm and snarkiness to a socially acceptable level.
But, I still have a reservoir of snark to discharge before the end of the year, so here’s hoping we can enjoy 2009 without: bumper stickers supporting environmental causes; the passive voice; “complementary” not “complimentary;” shops with doors wide open and mechanical systems roaring; FUV’s with bumper stickers supporting environmental causes. Now that I got that out of my system…
The New Year really starts on January 20th. This Wednesday night is just an abstraction, watching a clock tick and toasting its continued ticking. The whine festival is over. It’s clean up time and we have a lot of wonderful, fulfilling, important work to do. See you next year.
Before I post my year-end whine festival, I have to encourage everyone to see a recent episode of Frontline. I’m a big fan of that series on PBS (even if the narrator’s mellifluous voice makes me drowsy every time) and I finally got around to watching Heat, which we had recorded from its October airtime. It did not disappoint. At 2 hours it seems like a long haul but it was an extremely thorough look at the full range of causes of climate change. It drilled down deep—in a geothermal way, not a Giuliani way—into complexities that are rarely addressed, including even the carbon footprint of cement production weighed against the benefit of construction of nuclear power plants. There was a clip from an astonishingly prescient film made in the 1950’s with two scientists warning of the clear evidence of human generated carbon and its impact on climate change. Somehow the satisfaction of wielding the world’s largest “I told you so” doesn’t quite compensate for being dismissed for half a century. You can download the whole thing and follow all sorts of useful links at:
Stop that (slap)...it’s neither problem nor nuisance! That was just a rhetorical set up. It is what it is: the change of seasons gradually requesting of us humans a little bit of accommodation. When we realized that our exhibition content gave us the freedom to uncover the windows, we also accepted the responsibility to attend to the constantly changing consequences. This is the existential heart of the sustainability contract: with freedom comes an equal measure of responsibility. It’s two for one, a package deal, BOGO. It’s easy to forget that contract, because the terms of collection can be very subtle. You are free to set your thermostat wherever you like...but don’t forget the responsibility you share for climate change. You are free to live wherever you like...but remember that you are responsible for all consequences in equal measure to your freedom. You are free to open up your gallery to the southern light and warmth, but don’t forget that there will be consequences for legibility, interactive operability, widely differing experiences of the exhibition. And oh yes, there will be constant tinkering.
We considered all sorts of strategies early on and decided to wait and see what would happen. It’s not like we didn’t know—aforementioned Ecotect, and empiricism—but we couldn’t entirely predict how it would really be. We had no cultural memory of a year in light for that space in the building, so each day is a new experience. And yesterday, the first day of winter, it seemed about time to implement one of the shading strategies. We’ll be putting scrims on the windows in the first and last bay and then revisit the issue around the vernal equinox.
There’s something wonderful about thinking in these big seasonal chunks, these ancient milestones of solar time that lie deep under every calendar and cultural ritual on the planet. The winter solstice, Saturnalia, Christmas, Hanukah, et al., all cling to this dark time that so worried our primitive ancestors. It’s getting dark...too dark to see. Didn’t this happen last year? But the sun came back, and everything was okay. What did we do last year to make that happen? Well, we better do it again. The answer to that question is the origin of myth, ritual, and the whole package of communicating, appeasing, and cajoling the forces greater than ourselves.
There are plenty of smaller rituals that our parents and grandparents used to practice seasonally and they weren’t all aimed at the gods. Shuttering and un-shuttering windows, putting up and taking down awnings, planting and harvesting the garden, even spring and fall cleaning—all these are rituals of adjustment to the seasons. How few of these do we do now? Why? It’s not as if the solar system itself shifted to a low maintenance schedule. No, it’s us. We think we don’t have to, that all of those activities are somehow old fashioned. Our buildings now are often smarter than we are. They adjust the lights or heat on some mysterious electronic schedule in secret communication with the atomic clock. A smart thermostat never lets you shiver. The truth is we are suffering, individually and collectively, from TIA: Technology Induced Amnesia.
A heartbreaking chronic condition, TIA manifests itself in a spectrum of symptoms which vary from patient to patient. Like obesity and happiness, TIA is a social contagion, spreading rapidly through networks. Onset of TIA is marked by involuntary reaching for calculators to perform operations involving fractions and percentages. Later, spelling ability vanishes along with memory for phone numbers. More insidious are the subtle losses which can easily remain hidden from others: affixing shutters to building exteriors and forgetting the hinges; opening windows when the heat comes on too strong; driving to get a quart of milk. Fortunately, there is treatment for TIA and it requires nothing more than renewing the existential contract with the environment. The math and spelling problems, unfortunately, appear to be irruversable.
Clear cause and effect: throw your shoes at a world leader, become a hero...and be hustled away in your stocking feet. Did he have a back-up pair? Did he have an accomplice? Action yields reaction...and then a chain of reactions unanticipated by the Lone Shoe Thrower.
Reasonably clear cause and effect: smoke, develop cancer. Smoking’s relationship to cancer is official scientific truth, even though there are people who don’t smoke who do get lung cancer and people who do smoke but don’t. But it took a long time for the link to be established, and even longer for it to be accepted. On one side stood scientific reasoning, on the other wishful thinking; the former is no match for the latter, but the human mind has an almost infinite capacity for cognitive dissonances.
Unavoidably complex cause and effect: belch CO2 into the atmosphere, change the climate. But, like the stubborn, chemically-addicted smoker, we offer a collective shrug and mutter something about Chicken Little. If the local weatherperson says there is a 100% chance of rain tomorrow, most of us take an umbrella. We believe that the swirling colors and big blue arrows on the map carry some precious information about our future. We can actually see it coming...oooh, it’s already in Cumberland! It’s easier to believe small science than big science. It’s easier to act on something that has immediate and minor consequences than on something with diffuse and distended consequences.
It’s almost too obvious to bring in the old frog in boiling water story. (I personally harmed no frogs in the construction of this aphorism) The story is that a frog tossed into a pot of boiling water will leap back out immediately, but a frog put in a pot of tepid water will just sit there as the temperature is gradually raised (By whom? That’s not in the story, thus the awkward passive voice) until the frog finds itself, if frogs are sufficiently self-aware to find themselves, cooked. We are all individual frogs whether dialing up our daily caloric intake one cookie at a time or ratcheting up the acceptable price on some coveted item. It’s just a little more, a little bigger, a little warmer...what’s the harm? We’re also a nation of frogs, letting our city and town boundaries creep outward, adding one more lane, loosening one more little regulation. What’s the harm?
If we were frog-tossed into our future, the one we are blithely and blindly constructing for ourselves, like time travelers in a sci-fi film, we would return sobered. We would immediately regret the time and creativity squandered in pointless arguments about veracity and blame. We would suffer unprecedented anguish at what we had done. But ours is not the world of science fiction, only science. Tiny, incremental, inexorable change stalks the background of our sensible experience, and we just don’t believe that all of this will affect us. It must be somebody else’s problem. We continue our quotidian habits reassured that every day seems to be pretty much like the last one, as if wishing could keep change at bay. But that’s an idle wish, one that can not be realized. Example, a physical impossibility: I wish I were tall. Another example, any wish to change the past: I wish the Browns had beaten the Eagles. The one we need to avoid is to wish we had done something about climate change when we still had a chance. Hey, is it getting warm in here?
As he reminded both audiences, the mission of a civil city is to be sweet to its people, and to invite walking and biking. A city’s mission is not to sell it civil soul to the private automobile. And I mean all of them, whether gas guzzling, sipping or battery powered. Its worth remembering that as the media is saturated with images of penitent auto execs promising to make better cars and politicians extolling the duty of the tax payer to guarantee them the opportunity to make amends…and more cars. With all due respect to the disruption that a GM meltdown would engender, I do not believe our future prosperity should depend on automobile manufacturing. It’s ultimately a dead end. As another eminence gris of the design professions, Paolo Soleri, has said: the car is itself pollution. It eats land, requires miles of paving to be useful and acres of paving to be useless.
The incoming administration is promising a huge new infrastructure program, which I absolutely support in principle. What concerns me is the lack of imagination reflected in the language used: “road-building,” fixing our “aging freeways” …Excuse me? Roads? We don’t need no more stinking roads, Mr President-elect. What we need are streets, avenues, boulevards, alamedas, boardwalks, parkways, mews, lanes, sidewalks, bike lanes, steel rails—heavy and light--, piazzas, plazas, greens, fora, markets, bazaars, and an authentic ranges of choices about how to move about among those. A choice between a Chevy Volt and a Toyota Prius is no choice at all. A choice between feet and a bicycle, a bus or a shared car, a street car or a subway: those are real choices. And they make us, our cities, and our planet physically, socially, and culturally healthier.
If we’re going to dig deep into our already empty pockets for a New New Deal we should be sure that it’s a New Green Deal. We don’t have to suffer Copenhagan-envy. We can simply decide to do more and better. Oh yes…we can.
Her green paradigm just couldn’t handle it. And she’s not alone. Traditional environmentalism often carries the expectation that green is going to look a certain way...and that way is not this way. We can blame Jefferson for a lot of this (see 10.31.08 post, “they all live in cities”) We are still burdened with a set of green synonyms and antonyms that set urban improvements against nature: Arcadian vs. urban, photosynthetic vs. synthetic, open vs. bounded, expansive vs. dense, naturalistic vs. artificial, organic vs. technological, curved vs. straight, transcendental vs. contaminating...add your own. In this context the phrase “off the grid” means more than just opting out of big energy, it also means a rejection of the grid as a symbol of urban organization, of the hand of man. What could possibly be green about a grid? Yet, the word “green”, in whatever form—verb or adjective—has become a synecdoche for the larger complex of sustainability. And it’s within that new paradigm of sustainability that these two worlds have to find a literal common ground.
To Sustain: To strengthen or support; to keep (something) going over time or continuously; to confirm that (something) is just or valid. ORIGIN Latin sustinere, from tenere: “hold.”
To put it simply: sustainability is an end, green is among the means, which is where those old oppositions show up. In his prescient book, The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx talks about what he calls “2 kingdoms of force”-- the Arcadian and the technological, the natural and the human made-- as being the dominant themes of 19th c. American literature and painting. Of course, the desire to escape the 19th century industrial city for healthier pastures, literally, had very real reasons behind it: cities were dirty, diseased, and dangerous. That’s no longer the case—at least in the developed world-- but our cultural narrative still lags behind.
I call this the “Streets or Rivers” problematic. Streets and Rivers represent those two kingdoms of force in all their contradiction and opposition. The resolution of these contradictions resides more in the world of rhetoric and demonstration than in design and construction. By that I mean that we in the planning, design and construction worlds should brush up on our reading and art history to find a richer language to frame the changes we are trying to make. The education and enlightenment of the public, the citizens of the environment, is antecedent to changing public policy; changing public policy is antecedent to planning, which is antecedent to design, and eventually to construction. The issue is the conjunction: the problem is the “or”.
There are several communities in the exhibition that prove the value of other relationships between streets and rivers: in Mendoza, the river in the street; in Greensburg, the river and the street; in Bogota, the river of the street. The founders of Mendoza didn’t set out to get LEED ND status when they rebuilt their city in the 19th century after an earthquake. They just wanted to make a viable...sustainable...city. They designed as if their lives depended on it, because they did. And they still do. Mendoza reminds us that these are not new issues. History, as much or more than technology, contains the essence of sustainability.
Greensburg, Kansas is a world away from Mendoza geographically, but a kindred community. This farming town of 1400 was flattened by a catastrophic tornado in the spring of 2007. Only the grain elevators remained standing. As often happens, the disaster strengthened the community and gave them an unprecedented opportunity to reassess the town’s relationship to the elements of earth, air, fire and water that sustained it. Greensburg is where it is, and is a town at all, because of water. It is the site of deep well that served first passing stagecoaches and then steam trains on their way west. But like many towns Greensburg had taken its water for granted. Its new streets are designed and constructed to be part of a treatment train to capture, clean, and return rain and runoff to the aquifer beneath. Just like Mendoza’s acequias, this is clearly an engineering solution. And just like the acequias, the prosaic task of water management has been poetically revealed, celebrated, and made an essential part of the character-defining experience of the place.
In Bogota, the street has become a river, metaphorically. Only a tiny % of Bogotanos own cars but their needs had dominated the transportation spending priorities for decades, leaving the majority of less affluent citizens to fend for themselves, walking in unsafe conditions and hitching rides in the patchwork of private bus services. Under the leadership of Mayor Enrique Penalosa, that all changed. The money was redistributed and the infrastructure was redesigned. Cars got a little bit, to reflect their population, but pedestrians, cyclists, strollers, public transportation got most of the funding...and the design attention. As a river needs biodiversity, a street needs socio-economic diversity. A monoculture, whether in a street or a river, is by definition unsustainable. It is neither just nor valid.
Leo Marx wrote about the “current flight from the city”--current being 1964 when The Machine in the Garden was published--which had many contributing factors supported, he argues, by the deep cultural biases revealed in our synonyms and antonyms. He describes the “inchoate longing for a more ‘natural’ environment” and the resulting contempt for, and thus disinvestment in, cities. This, he claimed 40 years ago, was the great issue of our time. Our challenge today is to get these two kingdoms of force—the natural and the human-made, the urban and the Arcadian-- to converse...and reverse. The old model of fleeing the city for the Arcadian fields has been proven unsustainable, in the full richness of its definition. The new model has to bring the fields into the city, the garden into the machine, as it were, for both nature and culture to sustain and thrive.
We’re left with streets as metaphors, because streets as real, vibrant, diverse, and beautiful civic places were among the first causalities of the automobile age. Before we knew it streets became roads and in late 20th century America all roads lead to home, but away from the city. It’s an old story, the post-war flight from the city, underpinned by centuries of cultural values but hastened and accelerated by deliberate policy as much as social crises. The engine that drove it--here metaphor and reality collapse—was fueled by cheap gas. For smart growth advocates, alternative fuel proponents and entrepreneurs, mass transit users the rise in gas prices this summer was cause for real optimism, even if it looked to the auto-addicted as schadenfreude. The last entry in our Time Core in the Green Community exhibition is the July peak price of $140 per barrel.
Of course, that’s all changed. Crisis over. Gas is cheap again so let’s dust off the SUV’s and get back to life as we knew it. Amidst all the other bad financial news, for me the darkest is the drop in gas prices. Now is the time for a gas tax. And, fortunately, I am not alone in that opinion. Allan Sloan wrote about the need for a gas tax in his recent “Deals” column in the Washington Post. (“A Danger to Detroit in Low Gas Prices”, (http://www.washingtonpost.com) His argument has more currency than mine as he’s a renowned economist, and I’m, well, not. He also makes it clear that he's not a “car-hating elitist,” proving the truth of the old Klingon proverb that only Nixon could go to China. An SUV driver calling for a gas tax has real credibility.
Unlike Mr. Sloan, I am a car-hating elitist, or at least a car-averse elitist.--I’m sticking with the elitist part—so my support for a gas tax has all the credibility of meringue, but I hope the planning and design community will make its voices heard over this. Economic downturns like the one we appear to be careening into hit the design professions hard. Architects my age know that the recent good times were an anomaly, while younger architects know nothing but good times. The profession has been so busy it’s been hard for clients to even get an architect’s attention. It’s easier in a recession…just hold your hand up, and say “waiter!”
Seriously, the street we should all be focusing on isn’t Wall Street or Main Street, it’s Green Street. This is an opportunity to break some bad habits and get our metaphors in shape.
Without having attended all of the other museum visits they’ve had…which would have been great, since I still consider myself a novice in the curatorial biz…I spent the first part of our time together talking about what the Building Museum is not: not an art museum; not a science museum; not a history museum. And then talking about what the Green Community exhibition is not: it’s not a history exhibition; it has no original artifacts; and, it’s not neutral. Green Community is an advocacy exhibition.
Advocate. A wonderful word. It's from the Latin ad+ vocare. Various dictionaries define advocate, when it’s a verb, as “to summon for counsel.” The noun, advocate, is the one who is summoned. The prefix, ad, is the Latin preposition meaning to, toward, and for. It’s directional and it takes an object; that is, there’s always a thing at the other end to, for, or toward which the action is directed. (Latin geeks will smugly remember that ad takes the accusative ending) Vocare, the Latin verb, means to call, to summon, to name. The Italian and the Spanish words for attorney, avvocato and abogado, respectively, hew close to the original Latin; the attorney is literally the one summoned for counsel. An advocate speaks for and calls to. A blizzard of derivatives—the etymological kind, not the weird financial kind--falls from vocare: advocate, avocation, convoke, equivocal, evoke, invocation, invoke, provoke, revoke, vocation, vouch…voice.
So, what is an advocacy exhibition? Green Community, like the 2 Greens before it, speaks for, in support of, the content and calls to the visitor to listen and to act. The curator for an advocacy exhibition, then, deploys a different voice than she might use for a more traditional kind of exhibition. My previous exhibition, Tools of the Imagination, a thematic history of drawing tools and technologies from the 18th century to the present, was in the latter category. I chose the artifacts, drawings, and my words to illuminate and give context to the subject matter, but I wasn’t trying to convince anyone of anything. The take away message of Tools was not that the volutor was the better way to draw Ionic capitals, or that digital models were superior to cardboard. Not that I don’t have opinions on these things myself… they just weren’t germane to the narrative. (btw, volutors rule)
To be persuasive, to be an effective advocate, requires that everything--the original writing, the selection of quotes, the material and arrangement of the space, the colors and the graphics, the selection of each image, and of course the selection of the projects themselves—call to the visitor and speak for the goal of sustenance. The “calling to” and “speaking for” is directional, but it is not one-way, as the Smith students reminded me. Their questions and challenges demonstrated that an advocacy exhibition’s content is never entirely closed. It’s just the opening statement.
So, I’ve been spending a lot of time in that circle recently pondering as I always do: what makes it so good? This isn’t mere curiosity. As an architect and an educator of architects, I want to know how and why certain public places succeed and others don’t. Is it geometry? Material? Location? Maintenance? History? Quality of construction? As you may guess by now, it’s really all of the above, but surely there’s a hierarchy. Is any one of those qualities both necessary and sufficient? I’ve also wondered: does it look to others as it looks to me? Do my students see what I see when we visit?
Years ago, when we lived at 19th and Q, my husband’s sister and her family were visiting Washington and we were eager to share our neighborhood with them. Their two daughters, our nieces, were probably about 9 and 11 and had lived their entire young lives in the leafy green, sidewalk-free suburbs of Knoxville. We emerged from Metro at Q Street on a sunny late afternoon to the sound of the mud-bucket drumming, merchants hawking sunglasses and hats, belching buses, honking cars, and the general chatter of a 100% corner like that one. Katrina, the older of the girls, wrinkled her nose and said, “You live in this crummy neighborhood?” For a brief moment the veil of affectionate familiarity fell away and I saw my neighborhood through her eyes. What a cacophonous mess! She had no way to process what she saw, as her world was not constructed of this range of humanity. No one entered her world uninvited.
A truly public space issues no invitations and expects no rsvp’s, yet welcomes all. As Henri Lefebvre has written, we all have a right to the city. To spend time in a public place like Dupont Circle is to encounter the marginalized, the hungry, the un-and underemployed, the idle rich, the ladies done lunching, the dealmakers, the yoga masters, the baton twirlers, the chess players, the protesters, the singers and the drummers, the guerilla poetry insurgents, the chalk painters leaving cryptic messages (“just call her”) on the sidewalks, the football tossers and dog walkers, PC’s and Macs, the lonely, the lost, and the clueless. It’s so easy to draw a circle; just pin the center and rotate the arm completely. The difficult part it is introducing the ideal to the real, to make space into place. Be sure to look for our short film on the website, www.nbm.org to see what makes Dupont Circle, and a few other places in Washington, not just spaces but great, green places.
Katrina, the perplexed preteen, is now all grown, out of college, working and living on her own. From her apartment balcony she proudly showed us the bustling café-lined streets of her transit-oriented, mixed-use, compact town. Pretty crummy.
I'm writing this morning from the library of Virginia Tech's main campus in Blacksburg. I rolled down here yesterday (on rubber tires, alas, not steel rails) through the agrarian landscape that Jefferson treasured. Discussions about property, resources, policy, rights and responsibilities...these are not abstract issues outside of design and construction. They bear directly on it. The media often talk about "the political landscape" without realizing just how accurate they are: the landscape is in fact political. Jefferson and his ideal citizen farmers saw the landscape as both physically and politically productive. It was the source of all wealth, food, and citizenship. This was Jefferson's sustainable landscape. We who live in cities, whom Jefferson mistrusted, see the landscape around us as productive in a different way. The city's open space is public space, not the private land of the farmer. It is First Amendment space, productive for nurturing our rights to assemble, to speak, and to petition.
The city of Washington, about which Jefferson had decidely mixed feeliings, is rich with open space from circumscribed Edens like Dupont Circle, to the great green field at its monumental center, the National Mall. The radical urban proposition of filling the center of a national capital with an immense green space is lost to us now. It's too familiar. But a visit to any older city in Europe will reveal how different the symbolic center of Washington is. Getting the capital city designed and built is a long and wonderful story. It's told through the Building Museum's own "Symbol and City" exhibition which sits right below the Green Community exhibition. This sectional adjacency is just a consequence of space allocation, but the fortuitous result is an opportunity to think about the political landscape in all its complexity. Symbol and City then provides a kind of foundation for thinking about the processes of planning a city.
Each of the communitites in Green Community sits in its own unique political landscape, drawng from it energy and resources in the form of activism, advice and consent, legislation, and leadership. Masdar City's situation in the Arab Emirates is radically different from Greensburg, Kansas, even as both are mustering the same range of elements and technologies for their respective futures. Mona Terrace was born of such a complex political landscape that we challenged our graphic deisgners to devise a kind of "kinship diagram" and include the dates that each player came on the scene.
The two hundred plus years during which time L'Enfant's, and his clients,' visions have inched toward fulfillment with fits and starts, give scale to what the communitites exhibited on the second floor are doing. The future, as Shakespeare has said, is the undiscovered country. What our founding brothers and their architect knew, and what all of the communitites in Green Community also know, is that it's best to head out for that territory with at least vision and a map of where you want to go.
As I wrote on an earlier post, there are always surprises when something from the design world finally enters the real world, the experienced world. I’ve raved about the daylight, pointing out to the press on Monday how unusual it is to have a naturally lit exhibition. The surprise comes with how the space and its contents change with the day, from morning to afternoon, from sunny to cloudy. I hope that people will come back at least once a season, and at different times of the day just to see it. But it will take some getting used to. Museum visitors are accustomed to controlled conditions. The steady, if often very low, light levels and the consistent temperature of most exhibitions cocoon the visitor in a world not of this world. It can be an extraordinary experience to enter such a world, finally emerging, blinking and hungry (I always get hungry at museums) wondering what time it is. But, for Green Community it was important to remind our visitors... and ourselves...that this green exhibition is in the world, and the world is in the exhibition. Further, that we are in this place, on the south edge of this building, facing this Law Enforcement Memorial, atop this Metro station. The local contains the global. Will visitors articulate it to themselves in that way? It’s not necessary that they do, but if they stand in a sunny spot because it’s warmer there, or notice that the rotating globe at the entry wall becomes more vibrant in the late winter afternoon, or sometime next July gravitate to the cool of the Water section, then they have experienced the power of the changing natural environment on the designed environment.
The Biggest Thrill
You’re probably wondering why I called this post “Stella!” Veteran GC-ers already know that the tiniest community in the exhibition is Stella, Missouri (pop. 187) and its story would seem like a movie were it not true. So, Hollywood, here’s the pitch: Small farming town feels sprawl breathing down the highway from the HQ of a Big Successful Company up the Road. Citizens want their town to thrive, but not change character. A few spunky women of a certain age take matters into their own hands, buttonhole Bureaucrats at a meeting to get help to clean up an abandoned hospital, and map out a new plan for the future. (Here’s where Hollywood typecasting falls apart: The Bureaucrats? They are the good guys!) What happens next? Town meetings with architects and planners from the Environmental Protection Agency leads to an entire town talking about what its citizens value, what they fear, what they want for their children, and together government and the people make a plan. We learned about Stella from the incredibly helpful folks at the EPA. In fact, I would encourage all of our visitors to read every word in the exhibition and not to stop at the main text. Read the fine print and see who made each of these projects happen. While Washington-bashing is a seasonal activity, as we see these days, and the city is used as a synecdoche for everything wrong with the world, few of these U.S. based projects would have gone anywhere without federal funds, expertise, and cooperation. But Stella’s future was and remains in the hands of its devoted citizens and my biggest thrill Tuesday night was meeting three of the town’s matriarchs, two of whom were the initiators of the whole project. They shared their plans with me to open a bakery and dance studio—“for all the little girls in town who want to learn to dance”—on the main floor of their town’s most historic building and then add an apartment above. That’s the essence of sustainability.
The official thanks have been given, these are my own:
Reed, Cathy, Sandra, Alfred, Parker, Ken, Sarah, Asad, Jared, Martha, Lisa, , Hank, Chris, Shelagh, Brigid, Denisse, Simon, Sabrina, Kaid, Bill, Kira, Mary, the hardworking dedicated folks who invent, implement, and shepherd programs at EPA, DOE, HUD and the Interagency Sustainability Working Group inclusive but not limited to Phil, Phil, Alison, Edwin, Mike, Richard, Wendy, Pat, and to the EPA person whose name is buried in my notes who called me from an airport on the way from a conference to answer a question, and Eleonora, her mother Stella (another Stella!), Jane, Vicki and George, and... Douglas.
Someone once said that ideology is the apprehension of reality at a distance. That leads to all sorts of misunderstandings (astute readers may detect a whiff of political commentary, and they are encouraged to breathe deeply) and cities are coated with the residue of past ideologies. Urban renewal is the best example. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I suppose, but that was only because of the vast distance between the idea and the material of the situations. It wasn’t just urban ideology that tripped us up. There was “solar architecture”…that’s what it was called in the 70’s. For green architects, the 70’s are the embarrassing polyester leisure suit in the closet. For all the righteousness underpinning the effort, we ended up with houses and buildings that sacrificed the human experience on the altar of environmentalism. As clever as a trombe wall is, it always seemed a cruel and claustrophobic element in reality.
A window should not be reduced to an energy gathering device; nor should its appearance be fetishized by historic preservation. An architect was recently sharing with me her Sisyphean saga to secure the blessings of the Georgetown Fine Arts for a project that included window replacement on an older building. Each time she pushed the boulder up the hill, they pushed it back down. No, they repeated, you may not replace the single-pane, divided-light wood windows with double pane, high-performance windows because it will change the appearance of the building. This represents the pessimistic side of historicism...let’s call it that, because it doesn’t represent the intent of historic preservation...that change is inevitably change for the worse. Can that be true? The sciences, medicine, even sports, embrace change as the driver of progress. The next day I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition on low-e glass which has enormously improved the energy performance of windows. (“Energy Saving Windows a Legacy of the 70’s Energy Crisis” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95309739) All that effort by the researchers to develop amazing glass and the historicists will not allow it because it doesn’t look right? Progress, it seems, has left the building.
The clever builders and architects of the past did the best they could with what they had. The architect of our own building was remarkably progressive in environmental strategies. There’s an old photograph of the building with its south windows shaded by awnings, like an old resort hotel. For a while I had a copy propped up on my desk in front of my computer screen as a constant reminder of the phenomenological beauty born of architecture’s role in mediating exterior and interior environments. The façade looks at F Street in the bright sun through heavy lidded eyes. Awnings are technically a passive solar strategy, but they involve an active user. They are unfurled when needed, withdrawn or removed when the season changes. As I gaze at that image, I wonder what General Meigs would have done with active solar technologies. We are all familiar with the butterfly-wing blue of the standard photovoltaic panels, but PV comes in many media now. The army uses PV coated fabric which can be packed and unfolded for recharging batteries in field situations. What will historic preservation allow us? Are we too lovable to change? Could we re-deploy the awnings if we could prove that the General himself intended them? What about making them PV awnings, shading and collecting at once? I believe that our building, like many others that have survived to the present, is robust enough to receive changes and be better for them. I suspect that Meigs, seasoned military veteran that he was, would have embraced PV fabric for the awnings.
We should let our buildings get better as they age and continue to learn, like people. Fixating on appearance instead of performance yields botox buildings, with their 19th century grins permanently affixed to their facades. Italo Calvino whose birthday was inspiration for yesterday’s post wrote so beautifully about how a city ages that I’ll let him have the last word:
"As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. The city, however, does not tell is past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightening rods, the poles of the flags, every segment in turn with scratches, indentation, scrolls." (Invisible Cities, “Cities and Memory” chapter 3)
Calvino's Invisible Cities must be the most beloved work of literature among architects. A series of intoxicating meditations on a city it testifies to the underlying poetry in sustainability. Virgil, whose Aeneid so dominated my high school Latin classes that I can still recite its first lines, also deployed his poetic skills toward the agrarian life in the Georgics. Poetry about agriculture and the rural landscape, prose about cities...what a wonderful pair to share a birthday. What more could an architect, landscape architect or planner hope for than to design a city worthy of prose such as Calvino's, or a landscape worthy of Virgil? Are we making those?
N.B. Now, this off-scehdule posting will not become a habit, but I can see how it happens that bloggers begin to put down every thought that enters their heads. Before long they've all gone avian, twittering and chirping constantly. So far, I will resist, futile though it may be...
Whichever side of the design world one inhabits, though, design itself and its translation into building remain something of a mystery. What is design, really? We have a definition of it right there on the window of the exhibition: “To conceive and produce a design for; to plan or intend for a purpose; from Latin designare ‘mark out, designate’.” That’s the verb, to design. It’s an action. It’s work. It’s the base of a tetrahedron, sharing edges with the three faces of art, science, and the humanities. Unlike the fine arts, design is directed toward another end. It may be that ars artis gratia—art is for art’s sake—but design is for the sake of something else...someone else. It intends for a purpose.
One of the most inclusive definitions of design comes from Dieter Rams, the father of what might be called the “Braun look,” visible in those smooth coffee makers and small appliances that now in hindsight seem to have prefigured the Apple sensibility. He was interviewed a while ago in the Washington Post and I tore out the page to keep because it was one of the most lucid discussions of the fundamental principles of good design. Design, he said, was the act of “changing the present situation to the preferred one.” That can, of course, apply simply to changing the channel, or leaving a dull meeting. Those deliberate changes do involve a series of decisions and actions, but as an architect I’m not sure that’s a sufficient definition. Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. What’s missing is the alchemy, the material magic of bringing something from the imagination into the world. Changing the situation through design has to involve stuff in addition to will: tools, energy, technology, and material.
My own definition adds to Rams’s: Converting natural resources into cultural resources to change the present situation into the preferred one. Pass it through the green filter and it’s clear that the transmogrification of material from nature to culture carries a huge responsibility. If you’re going to mobilize human effort, capital, and energy to change trees into furniture, clay into cladding, and sand into glass, it better be worth it. A lot of destruction precedes construction. The result has to give more than it takes, literally, as in sending power back to the grid, or symbolically, as in making a place for a community that it didn’t have before. Each of the communities we chose for the exhibition is making that gift, each in its own way.
The other element missing from the definition is time. Managing design time is the bane of the architect’s professional life. How long does it take? Tom Regan, my first professor of architecture, answered the eternal student question, “when is it due?” with a cryptic: “when it’s finished.” But in the real world, deadlines determine completion, completion doesn’t determine deadlines. The exhibition itself was under design for about a year, and in fabrication for about two months. Installation will be finished, with apologies to Tom, when it’s due: October 20 for the press preview. But what about a city? When is it ever finished? There is no due date. Design at the city scale takes a long time, but implementation takes even longer. The complexity of the act of design pales against the complexity of implementing an urban plan. Changing the present situation to a preferred greener situation in any community happens over intergenerational time. These civic leaders, activists, urban designers and architects may not get to see how it all turns out, but the design effort is for the sake of the future.
I wasn’t always car free. My militant pedestrianism was precipitated by outside forces. My car was, how shall we say, liberated from my possession by an unknown thief in Alexandria in the fall of 1983. For years I’ve thought about writing a thank you note to this fellow (pardon my leaping to conclusions, but he probably was a fellow) so that he might know that he inadvertently did some good in what surely has been a pathetic life. Somehow I doubt he’s among my readers, but just in case:
Dear Mr. Petty Thief,
In the fall of 1983 I was living in Alexandria completing my last year of graduate school. I’m not sure when I last saw my car alive, because I drove so rarely. But one morning I needed it to get somewhere. At first, I assumed I had just forgotten where I had parked, but it gradually dawned on me that it was simply gone. Even then I had a hard time uttering the words into the phone to the police: My car has been stolen.
It really hurt, actually, and you should know that. It was the only car I had owned. I had received half of it as a graduation gift from my parents when I finished college; the other half I paid for. Alexandria, oddly, had a high rate of car theft, but I had always assumed that in a town full of BMW’s and Mercedes no one would bother taking my car, a 1971 pale yellow VW Beetle with a sunroof. It was already old when I got it, and I only had for a few years. With a few dents and dings, its ascetic interior and that distinctive lawnmower engine sound, it was a car that only an economically-challenged liberal arts grad stumbling to the end of an architecture degree could love.
But that morning, it was gone. Gone, gone, gone, really gone. The Alexandria police were just as nice as could be. Call your insurance company, they recommended gently, because you’re not likely to get it back. I think they knew you, Mr. Petty Thief, and they also knew their limits. My insurance company immediately offered a loaner car, which was amusing since I obviously had little need for a car. My boyfriend, now husband, and I drove that ridiculous loaner—a Chevette, of all things—all the way to Boston, stopping to visit every major work of architecture on the way: Post-Modern follies in New Jersey, ecumenical Meier in Hartford, sublime Kahn in New Haven and Exeter, and Corbusier in Boston.
It turned out the cops did find the car, or rather the carcass. You had stripped it and left it for dead across the river in the District. Mean. The plates were gone and all the vehicle identification numbers were destroyed...You were a real pro, I’ll give you that. But you forgot one little detail. There on the floor in the back was the business card of a small architecture firm in Alexandria. The police called and asked what surely must have been the strangest question that architect had ever heard: Are you missing a pale yellow 1971 VW bug with a sunroof and a William and Mary sticker in the back window? He asked his staff: any of you missing a pale yellow 1971 VW bug with a sunroof and a William and Mary sticker in the back window? No, but I know someone who is, answered a fellow architecture student.
And so I ended up at the notorious impoundment lot, thinking I would retrieve my car and order would be restored to the world. I would return to worrying about finding a parking space, not finding my car. I hope you brought a flat bed truck, said the cop, because “there’s nothing left but the paint, ma’am.” And that, believe it or not, is a direct quote.
I never went to identify the body, although the opportunity was offered. It just seemed too morbid. I left thinking that once I graduated, got a job, paid off my students loans, basically grew up, then I’d get myself another car...a real car this time, not a college girl’s bug. But, a move into the District, a layoff or two...and those student loans took a long time to pay off...and gradually it dropped way down, and finally off of my to-do list.
So there, you avaricious twerp. Your venal act was a gift in disguise. I leveraged it into an architectural tour of the east coast, a check from my insurance company that equaled what the car had cost 3 years before, a new paradigm for urban living, and one of the most memorable cop quotes this side of Dragnet. You freed me from a close call with auto-dependency. Thanks again. I couldn’t have done it without you!
We are a distinct minority, the car free, but we clump and gravitate to areas where the calculus of car ownership has flipped all the way from desire to disinterest. I neither need nor want one. In the Orwellian language of the auto industry and its advertising minions a car of one’s own represents freedom. Say it often enough and it will be as if true: “Americans love their cars.” But we really know better: true freedom is dropping off the rental and walking away. Freedom is tuning out the myriad traffic reports of jack-knifed tractor trailers. Freedom is thinking of the Occoquan only as a river and imagining the Springfield mixing bowl as a suburban bakery. Freedom is moving around the city without regard to one-way streets and without engaging in an exegesis of posted parking regulations. Freedom is not knowing what day your street gets swept. Freedom is no car payments, no car insurance, no repair bills, no nail-biting monitoring of gas prices, and not conflating geopolitical crises with your own personal inconveniences. Freedom is declaring yourself a conscientious objector to shopping mall culture, (and I use the latter term in its broadest ethnological sense) and refusing to spend the precious hours of the only life we have on this earth strapped into a couple thousand pounds of metal in a line of like prisoners. Urbanites of the world arise: you have nothing to lose but your car keys…and you’ve already done that at least once.
Of course, if the rhetoric of liberation doesn’t move you, how about the rhetoric of self-improvement? Save money, lose weight, improve your cardio-vascular health, make your neighborhood a better place, and help save the planet. Who can resist such a blunt appeal to naked self-interest with a delicate altruistic finish? It’s easy to become a habitual pedestrian. Too bad being pedestrian is usually considered undesirable. The word has such banal connotations: quotidian, everyday, dull, and uninspired. Perhaps we need our own organization... the Pedestrian Anti-defamation League, henceforth know as PAL, to monitor the media for degrading uses of our adjective. The pedestrian must reposition itself in the language of marketing, and we should reposition ourselves right in the center of the city. Urban sustainability begins at the feet. A single generous sidewalk, trees, an occasional bench for rest and conversation—these are the fundamentals of green and livable communities. Call me pedestrian, but it really is that simple.
Preservation and sustainability arose from very different cultures, and in response to very different sets of circumstances, yet they now find themselves joined in an ethos of stewardship of our resources---the cultural, material, and natural. The sustainability movement owes a debt to its predecessor, the preservation movement, for refocusing the architecture and urban design professions on the value of the existing environment and for challenging the hegemony of the new. In fact, the preservation movement was really the avant-garde of sustainability.
Although it sounds counterintuitive, neither preservation nor sustainability is backward looking. Both, along with a whole host of ideas to which they have given birth such as smart growth, new urbanism, voluntary simplicity, and transit oriented development, comprise the only substantial critique of planned obsolescence built large. It is a critique of the cycle of invention, consumption and destruction which, in the name of progress, has dominated the last century, what author Anthony Tung has called the “century of destruction.” It was the preservationists who first ventured the radical thought that there might be other criteria for value in the built environment than pure utility or economic return; that buildings and neighborhoods might be valuable because they have received generations of human energy and care. And really, adaptive reuse is just recycling on the scale of building, a confluence of sustainability and preservation.
But what seems good in theory often meets the wicked problems of practice. We’re familiar with the term “livability” as applied to cities and neighborhoods, and cites are ranked according to livability indexes. I’d like to offer a “lovability” index to show the increasing difficulties that face green changes to historic buildings. The degree of difficulty in making significant physical changes to a historic property is directly proportional to that property’s lovability score. The conflicts between historic preservation and sustainability arise at technological thresholds: when active energy technologies are proposed to augment the stalwart passive strategies of historic buildings, or when mechanized horizontal transit such as rail and vertical transit in the form of elevators presses additional densities on the pre-industrial walking and walk-up city. Where the individual building is concerned, all of that conflict often comes down to that architectural singularity, the window.
From my 4th floor office I can look down to the 2nd floor and watch the Green Community space gradually take shape. It's wide open, to both the arcade around the magnificent Great Hall and the warm, southern light on F street. This is heresy in the museum world, allowing in pure, unmitigated daylight. We can only do it, of course, because this exhibition has no actual precious objects, no sensitive works on paper, or antique artifacts. Those 8 windows have been freed to share the sun with the interior, as they have for about 130 years. As we gathered a group of designers, architects, and engineers to ponder what we could do with all that sun during the year-long Green Community run, we rediscovered the power of the passive and the challenges of the active. But that story will have to wait until next week…
I'm enjoying the onset of fall. I'm rarely comfortable in the summer heat unless I'm doing something where sweat is expected and acceptable. And I don't much like air-conditioning either, especially when it's set to absolute zero. So, yes, I'm complaining about the weather. Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it, right?
Well, plenty of merchants around my neighborhood in Dupont Circle are doing their part for climate change. Accelerating it, that is. One shop after another props its door open, belching ice cold air into the great outdoors. And woe be to the eco-conscious pedestrian who nudges one shut; indignant staff will rush to prop it open again, usually muttering some Nuremburg-esque defense about simply following orders: “management requires that we keep the doors open and waste the last drops of fossil fuel, foul the air, melt the ice caps, and then raise our prices to cover our profligacy."
Oblivious merchants who should have a better grasp on these matters of supply and demand are burning energy like there’s no tomorrow. We the potential customers are supposed to succumb to the cool seduction, to come in and spend some money. But I for one can’t even enjoy the vicarious cool as I walk by. I feel as if I’ve been slimed with oil or coated with coal dust.
Economists would say that those businesses probably have no incentive to change their behavior. It’s unlikely the building owners share any energy savings with the tenants, and employees probably receive no bonuses for being responsible. Besides, everyone else is doing it... This dilemma is often referred to as the "tragedy of the commons," a parable of the interplay among shared resources and self-interest most famously articulated by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. The gist of Hardin’s argument, based on writings by William Lloyd Forster in the 1830s, is that individuals will consume as much of a shared resource as they can. It’s not in their self interest to conserve because it merely leaves room for someone else to consume their share.
If your personal frugality yields no tangible benefits, why bother? Why conserve, if everyone else is going to use up whatever is left on the table? No special benefits fall to the sole merchant who closes the door. Worse yet, maybe shoppers can’t figure out that he sells shoes if the door is closed, walls of glass notwithstanding, and they might go to the next shoe store down the street where the door is open. Of course, in Dupont Circle, all the shoe stores happen to be the same. This ubiquitous chain, let’s call it Carbon One, is probably the most egregious chiller in the neighborhood and the least receptive to walk-by door closings. I freely confess: I have been a card carrying member of the Carbon One frequent shoe buyers club. I keep my carbon footprint small, size 6 in fact, by living car-free, using Smartrip benefits, and walking everywhere I can. These days the little devil of consumption on my shoulder is urging me to go in: it’s the end of season sale! But there’s a green goddess on the other shaking her head: you weak, hypocritical girl. She is more persuasive. So, I’m kicking the habit. Good bye, Carbon One.
Yet, I can’t isolate myself in a cocoon of my own cleaner air and my own stable climate. I can’t reserve my own puddle of oil and carefully make it last my lifetime. Carbon One won’t notice my absence. But, as Hardin also points out, “we can never do nothing.” That is, inaction is a kind of action, but it is the wrong kind.
The past eight years have been marked by federal inaction on energy and climate change-- the wrong kind of action--so it has fallen to states, cities, communities, and activists to take local and incremental action, whittling away at the tragedy of the commons, lowering the total bill as it were. Individual actions do indeed make a difference, and many individuals taking the same action can make a huge difference. Communities around the world have sworn off inaction, and their actions are recharging the commons, yielding tangible and measurable dividends. My decision to quit patronizing energy-wasting establishments makes a small difference. When others decide to do the same, things begin to change.
How do we get those "others" to join the effort? Aren't they us? Stay tuned...