Green Change

I promised in an earlier blog (9.19) to pick up the story of making green changes to historic buildings and how the obvious solidarity between preservation and sustainability reveals hairlines cracks at the technological thresholds. Those cracks open wider at the ideological extremes of both positions, represented on one end by historic buildings that score high in the “lovability index” and on the other with the deep green adoration of technological efficiency. Those extreme positions set a high tech high performance future against what appears to be a revanchist nostalgia for the past. The issue is change in general, not only green change. We all want change, at least at the conceptual level. But when change finally show up at the door, hammer in hand, with its glib, “trust me it’s going to be better”, most of us just see the interminable disruption hidden behind the “going to be”. Change is great in theory, hindsight, or when applied to someone else somewhere else. Close up, it’s scary and disruptive.

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 fa├žade 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)

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