10.31.2008

"They all live in cities"

"They all live in cities." That's Thomas Jefferson in 1790 writing about his suspicions about the whole urban, centralized power and economy thing. The quote comes from a book I'm reading right now, "Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation," by Joseph J. Eillis. I've been enjoying reading each of his vignettes focusing on seminal moments in the formative years of the country. It might not seem like this has much to do with green design and sustainable development, but it's extraordinarily enlightening on the origins of many of our deeply rooted values...and conflicts.

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.

10.23.2008

Stella!

Today is not just any Thursday...it’s Green Community opening day. Actually we’ve had a “soft” opening, with one wonderful celebratory event after another. Press, advisors, supporters, members, friends...have already had the chance to see what everyone can now see. Although those who know me well would agree that I’ve never met a microphone I didn’t like, I have to admit that I felt some uncharacteristic butterflies Tuesday night when Chase introduced me to make a few remarks to the hundreds of people in the audience. As I said then, I could have done nothing but thank people, one after another, for making the exhibition what it is, but there was wine to drink, food to enjoy, and the exhibition itself to see, so I kept things brief. But there are a few things left to say, and isn’t that what a blog is for? So, today’s blog comes in 3 acts: Another Surprise, The Biggest Thrill, More Thanks.

Another Surprise
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.


More Thanks
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.

10.16.2008

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)

10.15.2008

happy birthday Calvino!

I heard on the Writer's Almanac that today that Ocotber 15th is the birthday of both Italo Calvino and Virgil. (http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/) It also happens to be a Wednesday, which is not my usual post day, but this seemed a good excuse to buck my weekly schedule.

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...

10.09.2008

Design time

The installation of material has begun in the Green Community gallery. Much to my surprise it looks just like the perspective rendering provided by our designers, Brooklyn-based architects Matter Practice. Non-architects may wonder why that’s a surprise. Isn’t that what renderings are for-- to show us what the space or building will look like when it’s real? Back in the old days before software changed the game, constructing a convincing rendering was a painstaking and expensive enterprise undertaken only after the design team was pretty convinced of the solution. Like a crystal ball, such images predict the future, but the real future is always a bit of a surprise. Images we make clip and frame the world so nothing accidental intrudes, yet the real world is full of intrusions not of our own making. It’s humbling to see one’s own ideas made manifest. I don’t have that experience as an architect much any more, having left active practice for teaching and curating. Instead, I’m a client...the shoe is on the proverbial other foot.

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.


10.02.2008

Thank you Mr. Petty Car Thief

I took a taxi out to some inaccessible location in the wilds of Northern Virignia recently. At the reception desk I was handed my visitor's badge and a parking pass. I gave it back saying I didn't have a car. (Thanks, but no thanks, I might have said...but I just can't) She looked at me as if I had just beamed down from another dimension. Carlessness just wasn't part of her paradigm.

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!