Peaceable Assembly

What can I contribute to the mountain of words after the Inauguration? I’ve lived in Washington now for nearly 25 years and I have never experienced anything quite like that and I found it difficult immediately to digest most of last week. For us fans of the plan---the L’Enfant plan that is—the entire day of ritual assembly and choreographed procession provided an extraordinary demonstration of the true role of a capital city…our beautiful capital city in particular.

Visitors from European capitals have since the 18th century dismissed Washington for one reason or another: embarrassingly grand, yet empty; pretentious yet provincial; all about commemorating the dead and doing nothing for the living…Its wide avenues often seem empty; its huge expanses of lawn seem comically anti-urban. But, the city is fulfilled when filled. And it was filled on Tuesday.
The ideals of the structure of the government and the relationship of the government to the people are inscribed in the very form of the city. In that sense, the drawings of the whole gang--Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Andrew Ellicott, the surveyor who completed L’Enfant’s plan, and Benjamin Banneker, the African American mathematician and technical assistant to Ellicott,--for the design of the new capital city are no less founding documents of the United states than the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights. They just happen to be written in a different language.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
--The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The plan is the First Amendment manifest, and last week we had a series of events, from the peaceable assemblies of joy for music and inauguration, and peaceable assemblies of petition in the gatherings to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. The city receives both generously. In fact, from the perspective of urban design and architecture, the First Amendment, often called the "free speech" amendment, can also be described as the “free space” amendment, in that its provisions encompass the physical conditions of assembly as the boundaries of expression, and the representation of ideas in the built environment.

“Representation” is the key word here: representation in the political sense as the hallmark of democracy, and representation in the cultural sense through the symbolic languages of architecture and city design. The Greek word polis and the Latin word civitas each carry the same double meaning: the body politic and the physical city. The profound connection between the political and the physical was framed millennia ago in the Athenian Oath, in which the citizens would vow to leave the City, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was left to them. Is there any better mission statement for a truly sustainable city?


Be Patient

These are the days here in Washington. The helicopters started their slow circles on Friday night. The Metro is filling with pink cheeked novices. The storefronts are hung with red, white, and blue bunting, framing taffeta and sequins inside. A line of tough bicycles is parked, unlocked, outside of a cafe on Connecticut Avenue. A line of tough bicycle cops is inside. One keeps an eye on the wheels. Who would dare? You can't steal all of them, and woe to someone who steals just one and becomes the object of a high speed two wheeled posse. The military presence on the streets surely exceeds that in Baghdad. And tomorrow, we bundle up and take the long walk down the hill with a few of our neighbors just so we can say later, "we were there."

As amazing as it may be to committed transit geeks and urbanists, many of those coming into the city will never have taken a bus, or ridden a subway. The protocols are mysterious to them, the ticketing confusing, routes perplexing. Why does the train say Glenmont if it takes me to Metro Center? The eyes of the world will be on this beautiful city, so let's make a good impression. Jan Gehl's urban prime directive rings in my head: be sweet. And be patient.

As the Dylan song says, things are going to get interesting right about now...


Happy "Green" Year

Lake Superior State University is feeling pretty superior these days, making news with its annual list of banned words. (http://www.lssu.edu/banished/current.php) I yield to no one as a vocabulary snob, but like all year end lists, it’s too easy to inflict some collateral damage while shooting down words. Maverick? It’s a mad cow. First Dude? Yikes. And that “<3”? I don't even know what that is!

You know what’s coming: it’s the “green” ban. Mea culpa, mea culpa...I have used “green” as a verb, as synecdoche, as unopened baggage, as righteous medal of honor, as code word, as insider jargon, with and without “ “’s, as otiose shorthand to avoid having to think of a deeper, more effective phrase. It’s the same problem with “carbon footprint.” Still, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater...it’s just gray water and we can filter it and use it again after all. The baby, though, is the whole sustainability paradigm (oops, that one was probably banned in the last decade) and it’s still a little helpless, mewling, and incoherent. Our infant paradigm has ill-defined boundaries and lacks discipline. It has no clear sense of what belongs to it. It makes noises at inopportune times. It demands our attention and won’t let it go. Our little one is green in so many ways.

I worry that parts of the design community will fold up “green” and file it in the archives with “modernism”, “post-modernism”, “deconstrucivism”, “twigs in space”, “blob-itecture”, “neo-neo-classicism”, and all the other instantly consumed trends of the last decades. Not that the entire design and construction community appears to be interested in green; somebody provided design services to Dubai for the indoor ski slope. This isn’t fashion; it’s the opposite of fashion. This the necessary return to first principles in urban and building design.

Words have enormous power. By naming trends, groups, movements, we divide the “in” from the “out” and in so doing we make jargon. Naming something, whether music or architectural practices, “alternative” marginalizes that production and sets it in opposition to convention. Naming something “green” unfortunately does the exact same thing. The need for the appellation means that green is not mainstream. If only it were true that “green architecture” were just a synonym for “good architecture.” I was just talking to a friend of mine, an architect from London, who commented on this very issue. He confessed to blanch a bit each time he described his practice as “green”, or saw his firm described as such in the media. Not that he doesn’t fully believe that this is the way to build, but he recognizes that he’s been sorted into a category which attracts and repels in unpredictable measure.

For years I was deeply involved with a group called Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. It is still active and doing remarkable work, most of it centered around the Bay Area on the west coast.
http://www.adpsr.org/Home.htm Even when I held office in the group I had the perverse desire that it, along with all of the AIA Committees on the Environment, would one day become obsolete as ALL architects, designers, and planners should be for social responsibility. There is no other task for the design professions. Call it green, call it sustainable development, call it environmental justice, call it public health, call it national security, call it economic stimulus...call it whatever you want, just don't ban the word.