Never put off until tomorrow...

I know I said in my last post that I’d be back in 2010, and it’s still technically 2009, but among my new year’s resolutions—along with be more p a t i e n t—is quit procrastinating. Working right up to a deadline is a habit I’ve refined to perfection, but it is a bad habit nonetheless. So, here’s my inaugural post for 2010, early.

Resolutions are odd things, a grab bag of idle wishes, perennial self-improvement goals mixed up with a few tasks with clear performance benchmarks. I can vow to b e m o r e p a t i e n t, exercise regularly, apply for a few grants, start my next book, stay in better touch with my family, and a year from now the results will themselves defy consistent assessment. Well, any grants applied for? Yes or no. Book started? Yes or no. More p a t i e n t? What’s your point? I don’t have all day.

I’ve always felt that New Year’s Day was misplaced. Inventing January is another one of those things the Romans did for us, but the day we know as Labor Day makes a better New Year. That’s of course the academic in me speaking, remembering that each fall always felt like the start of something new and promising. I loved the whole back-to-school package, the new shoes and clothes, true, but more so the new notebooks and pens. I suspect that all teachers at whatever level carry that sense of the New Year beginning with fall semester rather than “spring” semester. Besides “spring” in no way describes something that begins in January; it’s a sick joke.

I’m sure there are those who would argue for the real spring, starting in March, as the New Year’s start. Mother Nature subscribes to that one. But Spring New Year, the first harbinger of which is the arrival of the Burpee catalogue—check out those Astilbes—arrives mid-semester and prefigures a rush to the end rather than a beginning. While new shoots and leaves are erupting I’m thinking of everything that needs to be done before the school year ends.

We should just acknowledge that there are more fresh starts in any given year than just January 1. Maybe that’s why I never been a New Year’s Eve kind of person. It’s a strange celebration that is devoted to watching a clock tick, a triumph of abstraction over experience. The Fall New Year is marked by days and weeks of preparation and is celebrated in a full day, the first day of school. Rituals like Finding Your Place, the Reading of the Syllabus, and Beseeching the Administration for Favors are enacted each year to propitiate the gods of fresh starts. It is a full experience, both personal and communal, not merely a tick or a tock.

May brings another New Year as the figure-ground of my weeks reverses from mostly WAAC with one day at the Museum to mostly Museum to one at WAAC. But the curatorial world has its own rhythms of endings and beginnings. Green Community the exhibition has closed, ceding the spotlight to House of Cars—insert inescapable irony here—and I felt I had permission to put off any new starts until the calendar demanded it of me. That would be today.

At my NBM desk I’ve sorted through the Green Community moraine, clearing a place where Reyner Banham and Vitruvius now sit side by side awaiting my attention. At my WAAC desk I’ve put last semester’s books back on the shelf and signed off on stack of draft thesis books. The hypotheses and problems on both desks in 2010 are as usual similar and mutually reinforcing, positively chiasmic in fact, but they are not new. They are different framings and formulations of the eternal questions of nature, culture, technology and us as expressed in our constructions. That ought to keep me busy.


Never can say good-bye…no, no, no, I never can say good-bye

In the end, Green Community got a month reprieve, closing on November 29 instead of October 25. My last moments with my exhibition were Thursday evening, November 19. We had spent the morning on Capitol Hill, hosted by Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Alison Schwartz, doing a panel discussion for a roomful of staffers. At the table sat three of the contributors to the book, Jonathan Rose, Tom Daniels, and Kaid Benfield, and with only a tiny bit of prompting from the moderator—me--, we had a long and substantive discussion on the array of issues in front of us and what the federal government in particular can do. For me it was an event both humbling and inspiring: humbling because of the depth, range, and passion of the panelists with whom I was honored to share the stage; inspiring for the seriousness and forthrightness of the questions from the audience. All were invited to the closing reception at the end of the day.

Closing receptions aren’t typical, but I for one am all for making them a habit. We welcomed Museum staff, congressional staff, GC friends, and such advisory board members as could make it. It was a small group, but it was a chance for final thank-you’s and a last toast. It was also a chance for me to give a few final tours—most of the Congressional staffers had not seen it—and then catch a few minutes alone with my green community. It looked just beautiful in winter twilight, LED’s glowing as the light outside falls. Call me a sap, but I’ll admit to getting a little misty-eyed. GC and I had spent a lot of quality time together over the past year, which was a bit of a surprise.

Way back when, in summer of 08, we were talking about gearing up our web presence and getting curators like me to blog and tweet, it all seemed a little too late. I myself may have said at one of our meetings that once an exhibition opens the curator’s attention turns to other things; her work is done. More interesting, surely, would be blogging during the year + of research and design. All this about blogging and such, I’d remember that for next time. But, one of our summer scholars was persistent and she encouraged me to go ahead and dive in. Thus was born Gang Green. And, little did I know, once Green Community opened I never did move on. I gave innumerable tours, went out on the lecture circuit to universities, civic organizations, and professional associations, worked on web-films (stay tuned, there are more of those in the pipeline!) and then dove right into shaping the book. In fact, adding in the year or so of research, another year working with the design team, and then the year of the exhibition itself, GC and I have had a three year relationship…in duration second only to my marriage.

My plan had always been to sunset Gang Green, and if I were adhering to my plan this would have been my valedictory blog. But, from that subjunctive-laden sentence, you can tell that is not the case. Just as there is no completion date on any of the communities in either exhibition or book; there is no single moment when the green teams pats one another on the back and say “well done, mate…our work here is done.” The work is never done. Neither, despite our closing toasts and back-pats, is ours. Somehow to talk and walk green for a year and then shut up and vanish doesn’t seem consistent with the whole project. In fact, now that there’s no current exhibition up with “green” in its title, it’s more important than ever to ratchet up the other media to keep engaged.

I often tell anyone who will listen, and many who won’t, that behind every story in the news—whether sports, national security, social, cultural, economic, or health related—lurks environmental design. It’s all about design. So, with the exhibition gone, I’ll be re-positioning Gang Green to look outward. And, I intend to put the “gang” back into Gang Green. I’m going to invite some of you—don’t avert your eyes to avoid being called on, I know that trick—to join the Gang and share your research, questions, concerns, and maybe even some answers. We begin again in 2010.


the 13th chime

I’ve been watching a building go up. The empty lots in and around the King Street Metro are gradually filling in, as they should. The new kid in the neighborhood is just up the hill and west of the Crate and Barrel outlet. The steel frame went up this summer and I feared, having seen plenty of new buildings go up in Old Town, that this was its zenith. It would be all downhill once the bricks started hanging from the frame, trailing strips of play-doh expansion joints, and reach its nadir when various chunks of precast would no doubt be applied to assure meaning and legibility. Ah, yes, a pediment! That must be the entrance.
Frankly, the bar is so low for contemporary architecture in Old Town that the adjacent Crate and Barrel ranks as one of the best of its era. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a thoughtful and elegant brick skin, and more pleased still to see the street façade clad in crisp silvery metal panels. Here, it seemed, was a building that had some sense of its time and its construction method, maintained respect for its urban and material situation, but managed to avoid the sycophantic contextualism on display just east on both King and Prince Streets.
Then, at the end of last week, came the little fin just above and spanning about half the length of the windows on the metal panel façade. Exterior sun-shading, perhaps? Uh, no. This is the north façade. Besides, even if this were the south side these anorexic fins would be incapable of providing anything more than a shifting strip of shade on the glass. Now, there’s nothing wrong with an overhang on the north side. In a Tidewater climate such an element can provide that most generous and elusive gift: protection for an open window in the rain. But for that one would expect a) an operable window below and b) a fin with enough reach to do the job. As I stared at the façade I realized I was running out of benefit-of-a-doubt excuses.
It seems that this new building has inadvertently fallen into a particularly insidious form of Alexandria contextualism: attaching elements that pretend to do something significant, but instead do nothing at all. Shutters nailed to the wall, cupolas unable to breathe, blind dormers, and now dysfunctional sun-shading. Like the proverbial 13th chime of the clock, these elements erode the integrity not only of themselves, but of all that came before. When exterior sun-shading, the most elegant, truly architectural strategy for fine-tuning a building to its environment, is deployed as a motif then we’ve undermined our own legitimacy in environmental leadership: it’s just decoration.
Well, now I’ve done it. I’ve just stepped into the truth and beauty argument, and I can hear the epithets: You functionalist! You decorator! Don’t you know ornament is a crime! Well, your mother is a minimalist! Using history the way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support rather than illumination—architects have been treading the culturally constructed integrity high-wire for centuries. Loos, Sullivan, Kahn have tried to parse the difference between decoration and ornament, satisfying me, for one, but somehow the public never read the Cliff notes. The hardcore functionalists ask if an element doesn’t “do” anything then why use it. Well, that all depends on what the definition of “do” does, to paraphrase our former President.
Ornament is born of construction—the adoration of the joint, in Louis Kahn’s memorable words—while decoration strives to conceal it. The degree to which some of us can stomach decoration varies widely, like tolerance to really sugary food. It’s deception that is impossible to digest. The architects of this otherwise perfectly admirable building, the kind Alexandria should encourage, acted either out of cynicism or ignorance in reducing exterior shading to a motif. And I don’t know which one is worse.


post-post-disciplinary post

Alas, I was not so original as I thought...turns out post-disciplinary has been around for awhile.


a festival of prefixes

Discipline. Context is everything in that word. As a personal trait it’s a virtue; as a verb it’s sobering. Architecture is a discipline and its practice takes discipline. It also needs other disciplines. No discipline is an island.

I’ve been in a disciplinary frame of mind for a while now, sparked by two weeks of student midterm reviews and a day trip to Philadelphia. Students in both the architecture and landscape architecture programs at WAAC—we are bi-disciplinary—learn two kinds of discipline in the short time we have them. In our overtly existential environment self-discipline is fundamental to mastering one’s discipline. With equal measures of freedom and responsibility, our students learn (or should learn) that they are responsible for their own choices about what to do and how to do it. We don’t chase them, take role, or impose requirements and serial deadlines. To be a professional, to have mastered the discipline, requires mastering, disciplining, yourself. It’s all much easier to say than to do and we the faculty aren’t always the exemplars we’d like to be. For example, my own self-imposed schedule to post 500 words on this blog has begun to wane in recent weeks, as my disciplined readers know...if they exist. Mea culpa.

Of course, even as we are coaching our students to master the territory of their chosen discipline we’re engaged in a parallel effort at interdiscipinarity. My own studio is probably 60% landscape students; my studio partner landscape architect Jon Fitch and I share custody of the whole gang and bring our own disciplinary perspectives to bear on both landscape and architecture projects. The WAAC is an inter-kind of place. With students and faculty from schools all over the world, and mid-career grad students mixing it up with 4th year undergrads, we’re not only interdisciplinary, but international, and inter-generational…and interesting.

In Philadelphia I visited Philadelphia University, where one of my former students, Rob Fleming, aka “EcoMan,” is directing a new graduate program in sustainability that is truly interdisciplinary. It’s a mash up of students from almost any background, immersed in a gregarious studio culture. Rob sees this as something beyond interdisciplinary; he calls it transdisciplinary. That great word invention got us talking about the veritable festival of prefixes (prefices?) for the word "disciplinary" as we all try to get our silo-busting metaphors just so. Inter...cross...multi...meta-disciplinary? Uber-disciplinary? Infra-disciplinary? Exo-disciplinary? Nano-disciplinary? Oh wait...e-disciplinary!

“Interdisciplinary, ” the old stand-by, is still viable for my teaching environment. We’re teaching specific disciplines, architecture and landscape architecture, but we’re simultaneously probing the space between them--that’s the “inter-” part. It’s also, of course, the interesting part as our students look for the literal and conceptual cracks just outside their attention. I suppose there’s a bit of cross-disciplinary activity as well from the instructional perspective. I trespass into the landscape student’s space and Jon does the same in the architect’s space, each of us hauling our disciplinary knowledge across the border with us.

But Rob’s term, "transdisciplinary", has a nice ring to it. More expansive than “interdisciplinary” and more evocative of crossing than “cross-disciplinary”, “transdisciplinary” feels constantly active. And, it looks just fine without a hyphen. But transdisciplinary still assumes a structure of disciplines over and through which one navigates, and as Rob describes what he is trying to accomplish with his sustainability student polymaths it gets difficult to determine exactly what discipline they’re in. They do some design, but may not be designers. They need to understand the planning process, but may not be planners. They need to know the difference between capital costs and operating costs, but may not be financiers. The sustainability problematic challenges the whole assumption of discipline specificity. It’s not a set of silos, it’s the whole farm. It’s a post-disciplinary problem in need of some post-disciplinarians.

Post-disciplinary: you heard it here first. My late friend Doug Michels, whose life was itself a work of conceptual art, used to joke that he was going to get a © tattooed at the corner of his mouth so that everything he said was copyrighted. I won’t go that far, but you did hear it here first. Now, use it in your own sentence.


The chance of rain diminished hourly—50% at noon, 40% at 1, 30% at 2—so we went ahead with our class visit to Dumbarton Oaks this past Tuesday. By 2:30, after the 30+ students with a few extra Germans had listened to a brief introduction from the docent and filed out of the orangerie, the rain had indeed stopped and an implausibly picturesque mist had settled into the cracks and creases of the hillsides of Rock Creek Park. Without the distraction of a blue sky, the moist gold and red colors of the landscape glowed. And, I didn’t think to bring a camera. (photos here are from the garden's website)

To paraphrase the comment about Bryce Canyon—“it’s a helluva place to lose a cow”—
Dumbarton Oaks is a swell place to lose some students. So I found myself sitting alone in the vaulted and mosaic-ed porch outside the changing rooms by the pool contemplating both the landscape and The Landscape. Washington landscape architect Jon Fitch, who’s teaching studio with me this semester, often reminds our students that the discipline of landscape architecture is technically straightforward, even simple, but conceptually extremely difficult. It probably seems just the opposite to them; cool ideas come easier than mastering the fundamentals of techne. Actually, it is conceptually difficult to understand why it is conceptually difficult.

Every time I visit
Dumbarton Oaks I mull the same questions, enjoying the different answers the place provides me. What purpose does a garden serve? To what question is this an answer? In architecture we have so much function that we’ve been arguing incessantly about its causal relationship with form. All those arguments will eventually trudge back to the question of architecture’s origins in either the temple or the hut, that is, in either our desire to reify our position in the cosmos or our need to get the heck out of the rain.

Certainly landscape architecture has its own parallel question; its origins lie either in the Garden of Eden, or the garden of eatin’. The demands of program, though, are not the same. I’m not sure there is an architectural parallel to the garden as exemplified by Dumbarton Oaks. More like a poem, or a piece of music, such a construction serves absolutely no “function,” yet, as with poetry or music, the world would be lesser, baser place without it. Maybe its function is in fact representational, in the full sense of the word. In a chiasmus of architectural and natural elements, stone is carved in the form of leaves, flowers and fruit, trees are pleached and instructed to behave like columns. On the one hand, the pleaching, pollarding and espaliering—what a great vocabulary we have to describe this strange pseudo-construction—represents our prowess, our domination over nature. Look what we can do! But in these elisions there is a careful parsing of the fine differences between the natu
ral and the cultural.

Maybe we re-present nature to ourselves in such a way so we can begin to c
omprehend it, otherwise it simply can’t fit in our minds. In Dumbarton Oaks the “wilderness” of Rock Creek Park is just outside the fence. The garden is itself is acts as a sentry, keeping the untamed at bay. The landscape architect is lion tamer then, oh so carefully getting a much more powerful force to behave itself and perform. I imagine Beatrix Farrand herself with chair and whip in hand, knowing that the minute she turns her back the trees call a meeting and the bosque sets its own agenda.


Your guilt is waiting...

“I’ve got a few hours before my next pick-up, so I can take you all the way downtown. Where do you need to go?”

That was James, the burly, bald and chatty driver, who picked me up outside of the Fairfax County Government Palace, er, Center, in a black SUV with tinted windows. My mind flashed forward, I’m climbing down--and it is a long way down--from the back seat of this black behemoth, James is holding the door open, I’m alighting on F Street and striding self-importantly into the Museum. The caption in my mind’s eye read “green curator chauffeured to museum in gas-guzzling SUV.” Another example of hypocrisy among the greenerati.

“No thanks, I’m really a mass-transit kind of person. You can just drop me at the next Metro station.”

That was me, demurring. It’s just not in my nature. So I leapt out at West Falls Church--not Vienna as planned because James was having too much fun playing movie trivia quiz with his increasingly self-conscious passenger--and assumed my usual position: stand on the platform, ear buds in, Washington Post in subway fold origami, strangely content to wait for the train. Truth is I was already feeling pretty guilty...*

I had been invited by the Fairfax County Restoration Project to open a day-long workshop with a talk on what other communities can teach us about green. It was held at the Fairfax County Government Center, a center of government business for sure, but not, itself, in the center of anything. I asked the organizers about the best way for a carless individual to get there and they immediately offered to send a car for me...all the way to my door in the District. While black Lincoln Town Cars are ubiquitous in the Kalorama neighborhood, it just seemed a little over the top. Besides, how on this bruised and abused earth could I travel that way to talk about sustainability? Instead, I was picked up at the Vienna Metro in, yes, a black
LincolnTown Car and dropped at the palace gate.

It was a small but engaged audience, led by an energetic and committed woman trying to effect immense cultural change in the paradigmatic American suburb, one backyard at a time. I gave a version of the talk I’ve been giving to public groups all year, pulling out a few favorite anecdotes, and cheering on the transformative forces of density, public transportation, sidewalks, diversity...and even as the words were coming out of my mouth it dawned on me that this was probably not what they thought they were going to hear. They had come, I suspect, to hear about how to preserve their watersheds and green spaces by not developing, how to live righteously outside the city on curvy boulevards without sidewalks and keep the evils of urbanity at bay. As I referenced Leo Marx and his critique of our Arcadian fantasies, I realized that is exactly what Fairfax County is: an Arcadian fantasy, the green component of which is entirely due to chlorophyll.

Things got more interesting during Q&A. When someone in the audience asked what communities around the DC area I thought were good models of green behavior, I immediately said Arlington County. Oops. That’s like telling the Redskins that maybe they should look at the Cowboys’ offense as a model. A woman asked how a citizenry can begin to make change. “What should we ask for?” she said. “Truly viable public transportation, sidewalks, density at transit stations, mixed-use zoning,” I offered, while a polite silence settled. Then a self-described “practical man” asked how all these efforts, Greenburg Kansas in particular, were paid for. “Greensburg,” I began, “has insurance money but also foundation money, as it’s being seen as a demonstration”...then I, filled with frustration at the lack of reality in the Virginia governor’s race regarding taxes, gave the straightest answer I could:

“Taxes, that’s how. Higher taxes. If we want thing to get better, we have to pay for it. Let’s be honest, you can’t get something for nothing. So, personally, I am ready and willing to pay taxes for the things that are important, and these issues are important.”

It felt good to say these things out loud. I’m not running for office, and I don’t even live in Virginia, so it took no special spine to do so, but it still felt good. This was not my choir, but I was preaching. Then I climbed into my waiting SUV and was whisked away.

*I was feeling guilty because I could have taken transit all the way. Had I boarded a train at Dupont Circle at 7:15, changed to Orange at Metro Center, gotten off at Vienna in time to catch the 7:56 Fairfax Connector #623, I could have arrived at the Government Center about an hour later. The $5.10 fare would have been a comically small percentage in dollars, carbon, and human labor of my Town Car/SUV adventure. Why didn’t I do it? Was it because they offered a car? Because I could? Because I was the speaker, and that made me special? Or because it was just so much easier? For those who have a choice, like I did, it’s too easy to choose the car. For those who don’t have a choice, well, they don’t have a choice.


How 'bout them...Lions?

“Washington Bails out Detroit” was the headline in the Post Monday morning, but it wasn’t about the economy. In a game obviously overflowing with cheap metaphors, the Washington Redskins lost to the Detroit Lions in Ford Field. That game ended the Lion’s losing streak at 19, second longest in NFL history. With insincere apologies to my Washington area neighbors, I couldn’t help but root for Detroit. The Lions were such infra-underdogs, underdogs so far under they might as well have been moles. Plus, it’s so easy to dislike the Redskins…there’s that name issue, then there’s, well, pretty much everything else.

It’s not rational of course. Nothing in sports fandom is. It’s the last bastion of acceptable irrationality and I make liberal—I couldn’t do otherwise—use of that permission to cheer for and rail against teams for a variety of certifiably nutty reasons. I don’t like teams with dopey logos. A dolphin with a helmet? Tampa Bay and that pirate ship thing? I don’t like teams with silly uniforms. The Seahawks new safety-green jerseys make them look like they should all be waving traffic around roadside construction. And, I save most of my venom for teams that won’t commit to their own locations, teams that want to wrap themselves in the ineffable iconicity of a city without any of the responsibility to be a part of one. Carolina Panthers? Pick one, North or South. They’re different states. New England Patriots? Talk about hedging your bets. Worse still are the location-deniers and, until recently, the champions in that group were the Giants and the Redskins. The Giants play in New Jersey. The day they proudly admit that and embrace their Jersey-ness is the day they win my affection.

The Redskins abandoned their power position at the east end of the monumental axis of Washington in 1996 and moved to an “unincorporated area” in Prince Georges County, Md. An unincorporated area. Not a town, not a borough, not a city, not a municipality. No neighborhood. No nothing. During their decades at RFK Stadium the ‘Skins were once a powerhouse of the NFL, not to mention a picturesque venue for television. Enough mojo, or momentum, or whatever, still clung to them as they packed up and moved to their current unmemorable location that they managed to win the NFC East championship in 1999, but alas, that was pretty much it. Conspiracy theorists might want to look into this, the hidden power, the significance of the axis. Maybe that’s the big secret in Dan Brown’s new book.

It’s with that in mind that I confess to being a Dallas Cowboys fan, but I have to admit that were I to rebuild all of my NFL affections anew I would probably have to reconsider. It’s the whole suburban package that grates on me. The Cowboys are now the most egregious of location-deniers. The over the top new stadium isn’t even in Dallas, which is itself only marginally a real place by my strict definition. Commentators are digging deep into their thesauruses to describe the new stadium, but I’m struggling to find a way to describe the sea, ocean, galaxy, of parking in which the stadium floats. They claim the stadium in Arlington, but it looks like it’s in Outer Asphaltia.

And that brings me back to the beleaguered Lions, who actually moved back into the city after years on the fringes. We urban fans of this largely suburban sport have give kudos not only to the Lions, but the likes of the Packers and the Steelers. But maybe the winner of this little Urbanity Bowl is the Baltimore Ravens, who celebrated 10 years deep in Baltimore last year. They’re 3-0 this season…more than coincidence? So, here’s a rational cheer for the Ravens. But I still can’t stand ‘em.