The Good, the Green, and the Beautiful

Wandering through Form and Movement, the exhibition of Philip Trager’s photographs that just opened at the National Building Museum, is an unalloyed delight. I can feel my blood pressure drop as I gaze at one exquisite image after another of architecture, the landscape or dancers. There are three photos of Villa Almerico Capra, more commonly known as La Rotonda, Palladio’s masterpiece in bi-lateral symmetry. One photo looks up the entry ramp toward the villa; another looks askance across a portico into the sun; the third looks up to the villa from a distant field sprinkled with dandelions. In each the building is identical; its fa├žade inscrutable to direction or environmental situation.

I can’t tell what time it is. That is partly the photographer’s intention; neither cars nor antennae fix the photos in any particular year. But my confusion comes from the architecture itself. I can’t tell what time of day it is. It is either early morning or late afternoon in the view from the portico, as we see long shadows stripe the floor. But I don’t know which. Even though I have visited La Rotonda more than once I carry no memory of its orientation.

The symmetry is Palladio’s hallmark and the photographer’s challenge. With infinitely thin center lines and architecture in perfect mirror to left and right, his buildings are more perfect than our bodies. But why should we even think of it as “perfect”? Why did I write that? Am I still tethered to the Neo-Platonist aesthetic that elevates abstract geometric purity over the handedness, inflections, tilts and biases that really define our life on earth?

Architecture is after all inescapably under the sun and he, (I’m still tethered to the Greek gods as well) not mathematics, should determine geometry. A building’s many faces should reflect its orientation. Orientation. It’s a good word to use, because its origin lies in establishing which direction is east. Knowing that, we can know the rest. Can we start to re-orient our architectural values? Begin to redefine what makes a beautiful building? Not that Palladio’s villas aren’t beautiful; it’s just that they come wrapped in their own historical context. Should they forever define what is “good architecture”?

I was a juror for the Washington area chapter of the USGBC’s annual design awards and that question—what is “good?”--dominated our deliberations. Because these were awards for projects that had already passed through one LEED filter or another, we were challenged to determine what made one better than its peers. Just being LEED Platinum didn’t guarantee a prize. I couldn’t help but wonder why it was so difficult to get the “green” and the “good” to snap into focus, like the image in a 3D film when you put on the dorky glasses. But there were a few clear cases where no glasses were going to help, because they were quite literally disoriented.

I was surprised, frankly, that the entrants in the LEED C&S category—that’s Core and Shell—paid so little attention to the S, the Shell. One entry’s glamour shot captured the building’s tight glass skin, unblemished by any exterior shading, reflecting the full force of the late afternoon sun. Great photo, I guess, but horrifically ill-suited to the task of celebrating the building’s sensitivity to its environment. Don’t blame the photographer: the building was not sensitive to its environment. It didn’t know its front from its back; its north from its south. It didn’t know where it was. The image represented a very traditional concept of beauty from the era of La Rotonda strikingly at odds with the new environmental concept it aspired to honor.

I’m not going to name names, because truly each of the competitors is striving to do the right thing; they’re succeeding incrementally, but all the parts aren’t working together yet. The USGBC is young as an organization, just a tween--a person that age would be dangerous with so much influence and ambition—but what they are doing is nothing short of changing our design value system. Focusing design evaluation on green building challenges conventional definitions of “good” architecture, of “beautiful.” What is the new canon? What is the “style for our time”? We’re still asking that Victorian question while trying to shake off both ossified Neo-Platonism and adolescent avant-gardism. To be beautiful, a building must know where it is. To be beautiful, a building must know its north from its south, its east from its west. To be beautiful, a building must know that rain falls. To be beautiful...add your own.


Here's to Edmonston, Maryland!

I read the news today. Oh boy. Shall I go on? About a little town that made the grade...

That would be Edmonston, in Prince Georges County, Maryland. As the Washington Post tells us in today’s Metro section, this town of 1500 has decided to redesign its Decatur Street as a green, pedestrian friendly, water-filtering, LED lit main street. There are so many wonderful things about this story I hardly know where to start, except to borrow the quote that ends Lisa Rein’s article: ‘"This will put us on the radar screen," Pooley said of the new street. "Even a working-class community can glom on to being a little bit aware of the environment."’

Spunky small towns figure so prominently in American mythology that it’s easy to forget the truth beneath them. In the Green Community exhibition we have two, Greensburg, Kansas and Stella, Missouri, both of which can hold their own against the likes of glam green Masdar City and transit savvy Portland. What Greensburg, Stella, and Edmonston share isn’t just their size; they share what Edmonston resident Maggie Pooley is pointing out in her comment. These are not the oft-caricatured organic-chardonnay sipping liberal environmental elites (like me?), nor the equally caricatured granola-crunchy un-reformed hipsters. No, these are blue-collar, service industry, construction workers, under- and un-employed who want and deserve a main street that can make them, their town, the Anacostia, and everything else downstream, healthier and more beautiful. And, make them proud of having done it.

As with Stella and Greensburg, Edmonston needed not only funding but expertise. Personally, I couldn’t be happier that the town got a little chunk of stimulus money. I’m proud that a penny or two of my taxes will fund permeable paving and the engineering and design necessary to lay it. It’s no surprise to read that the planners at EPA are involved; those initials show up in many of the Green Community projects. Professional help is also coming from the Low Impact Development Center. A non-profit located nearby in Beltsville, the Center is another example of the resources available to communities that want to, well, steward their resources. There are resources for resources.

Funding? Check. Expertise? Check. Hmmm, what are we missing? Oh yes...political leadership and citizen support? Check! The mayor’s statement that “we have to make things happen for us instead of making things happen to us” is just about the best call to action I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a true call to action, not an abstract exhortation or uplifting aspiration. And, it’s in the first person plural: we have to do it; it is in our hands. We will not remain a passive us, object of the action of others; we will take the action.

So, here’s to you Edmonstonians! Had I known about this a year ago, you would have been in the exhibition. Consider yourselves Honorary Members of Green Community but card-carrying, official members of the real green community.


more posts about buildings and food

No, today's post is not about the Talking Heads, nor gingerbread houses, although both are tempting subjects. There is a perverse delight in upending Maslow and consuming shelter and that wasn't far from my mind when I wrote a guest post this week on the Biotech Industry Organization's site What Can Biotech Do for You? Well, what can it do for me...in architecture, that is? I had at first wondered what I could contribute to the discussion as it seemed a little outside my area of expertise. But I gave it a shot, so here it is:

The Department of Energy’s semi-annual Solar Decathlon always offers a smorgasbord of amazing architecture, but the University of Colorado’s entry in 2005 was exceptional. It was just delicious. The structure, the finishes, the furnishings, and even the fuel to transport the house to the National Mall in Washington were all edible. Not that one would actually munch on the house, but the point was that the materials were all close to nature and made a healthier, more sustainable house. Using soy, corn, and canola oil among other ingredients, the young students who designed and built the house put a high tech twist on an old idea.

Vernacular architecture throughout the world has long made use of agricultural by-products, animal skins and bones, and other materials that today we would call “bio-based.” As the timeline in the National Building Museum’s current exhibition Green Community illustrates, there was a time when everything was on the table, so to speak, to build and power the industrial revolution. Inventors were tinkering with electric cars, solar hot water pumps and parabolic solar arrays. But by the First World War—and perhaps because of it—we had cast our lot with the familiar set of fossil fuels: gas, oil, coal and their derivative products. Oil seeps into everything now, from the obvious roads and transportation to the less obvious, such as cosmetics and building materials. As we start to make our exit from the Carbon Age, it’s time to put everything back on the table.

The options in the world of energy are familiar: wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, bio-fuels. But the world of materials needs rethinking too. Bamboo has proven a quick-growing worthy substitute for hard wood, but the material possibilities don’t stop there. Concrete manufacturers are looking at myriad additives, including rice hulls. As a judge this past winter for the Future City competition during National Engineers’ Week I saw middle school students embrace spider silk –though probably not the spiders themselves--for super-strong, yet light-weight building materials. This past March Popular Science gave one of their annual Invention Awards to the developers of insulation made from mushrooms. Thatched roofs are even making a bit of a comeback in the UK. And, the marriage of agriculture and architecture in vertical farming is challenging the conventional ways of building and farming, bringing food, shelter, and energy back into consonance. That may be one of the most problematic legacies of our carbon-based industrialization, splitting those 3 into separate domains and handing each to a different discipline. They are all much stronger when they are conceived as a set; triangulation, as any engineer will tell you, makes a strong structure.

The University of Colorado won 1st prize in 2005, as they had in 2002, not because the house was edible but because it performed the best under the sun. The bio-based theme was, well, dessert. But the thinking was the same. If we’re going to be clever and imaginative about how to power our buildings we can be just as clever and imaginative about their materials. Building greener means paying more attention to where our materials come from, how they get to us, and how they contribute to, rather than diminish, our health and the planet’s health over time. I wonder what this fall’s Solar Decathlon will bring...


Hat Trick

They’re playing rollerblade hockey on Pennsylvania Avenue. They’re playing games in this most serious of cities, on the most serious of its streets, under the unblinking gaze of its most serious and secret services. It’s enough to make me want to lace up a pair of skates and join in, at least in spirit.

I did play field hockey in high school and to this day I can remember the crisp thwack of ball hitting stick. Not that I ever actually made that sound as my stick rarely contacted the ball. I was a lousy player with no real instinct or aptitude for the game. I was not strong, nor fast, nor aggressive, nor skilled, but I wanted to be on the field with my two hockey-playing sisters who jointly were all of those things. The team, frankly, was more like me, incapable of mounting any meaningful attempt at competition with the North Jersey powerhouses like Chatham Borough and Chatham Township, or whatever Chatham came our way. I played for all the wrong reasons and yet it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is the pebble in the shoe of green activists. We all want people to do the right thing for the right reasons, so the rightness—and righteousness—is strengthened and magnified. Does it diminish the results of spiffing up the grounds of the Washington Monument and closing Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic in front of the White House that it was motivated by fear? Can we just enjoy the side effects and not dwell on the dark motivation? I’ve been commuting by SmartBike when I can to avoid the Red Line until it settles down and my rides sometimes take me through that space. I look forward to coasting between the bollards and owning the center of the pavement.

What inadvertent delight did we get for our fear? I guess, although we’ll never really know, we got a safer executive residence. We certainly got a safer place for tourists to gawk at the safer executive residence without fear of stepping back off the curb in to traffic. We also got a quieter place to contemplate the White House and its temporary occupants, and its place in the city, in the nation, and the Constitution. There is air to breathe, air in which to speak, air through which one can be heard, although it doesn’t guarantee that one will be heard.

Most delightfully, we got a monumental playground, a place of humor, silliness, exuberance, and sport. Pick-up roller-blade street hockey! An urban space born of fear has been transmogrified into one of play. Here’s to all the wrong reasons!


Garden of Weedin'

This just in: a month of rain and complete neglect produces a garden of remarkable diversity, with the invited and the uninvited flourishing in the front yard of our condo building. The strip between sidewalk and street was knee deep with plants I had never seen before. Where did they all come from? Wind, squirrels, dogs—ooo, don’t get me started on that—and of course the little brown birds. They have their own ideas about what I should be growing.

I finally carved out some time one morning last week to tame the mess. For a full hour and a half with trowel in one hand and one glove on the other, like an earthy Michael Jackson, I extirpated one mysterious interloper after another. Every time I weed, though, I contemplate my plant biases. Why should I exile one plant and favor another? Some of them are pretty objectionable, like the ironically named Tree of Heaven, which sinks to high heaven, but what did a dandelion ever do to me? In amongst the overgrowth was a single pink petunia, courtesy of the sparrows no doubt. So I carefully pulled that one and replanted it in a more appropriate position. The cute always get special treatment.

I’m a pragmatic gardener. Much as I tell myself that “weed” is just a cultural construct I still yank offending volunteers, despite there clear Darwinian achievements. Volunteers, like the petunia, are welcome to stay if they proved their commitment by thriving on their own. I like a plant that’s self-reliant. I’ve also learned that plants that require heroic measures probably don’t have a place in my garden. The lessons of Xeriscaping really stuck with me. The basic principle is that plants appropriate to a given location won’t whine constantly for water and nutrients. Nobody likes a whiner. And like so many green strategies, a Xeriscape garden takes less labor (ahhh), less water, less money, and therefore less energy. But I didn’t start out strategically to plant such a garden. For years I tinkered, failed, coddled my garden and developed unhealthy envy of the gardens of others. I think there’s a Commandment about that. There’s also a metaphor in there. How we garden, if we garden, says a lot about how we do other things.

If your process were a garden, what kind of garden would it be? I wish I could take credit for that wonderful question, but I can’t. A writer in London asked it of a group of other writers, so of course I had to ask the students as we sat on the grass in Bloomsbury Square. The answers of two students, one from art, one from science, were thought-provoking and laid out the stark contrast between their worlds. The Scientist said his wouldn’t be much of a garden at all because he would plant only one thing at a time. He would measure the water, the sun, the soil composition, and see how it fared at the end of the growing season. He had to admit the futility of such a pursuit, but confessed that controlling variables was what his garden, his process, was all about. Unfortunately, in this way he would never actually have a garden, only a frustratingly uncontrollable laboratory. The Artist described a garden that was already there, not one she herself had made. It presented itself to her in the guise of an overgrown jungle, full of places to be discovered, vines to swing on, and branches to climb. She didn’t know how it got there, or even where “there” was. It existed as a fertile gift to the body and the imagination. She couldn’t take credit for it, couldn’t own, it and certainly couldn’t control it. Hers was more like Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden where all things were possible to those willing to be open to the possibilities. Most of us probably fall somewhere between those two extremes.

Architects and planners, whatever their personal processes, know that the real world in which we operate probably shouldn’t be wiped clean and begun again under controlled conditions. That was the fallacy of the urban renewal, but sometimes catastrophe does it for us. I began and ended my month in London at the Barbican Center, first at the exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work and then at Radical Nature. The Barbican complex itself challenges glib judgments on the controlled experiment of Modernist post-war planning, but it also challenges our preconceptions of garden. Ivy-covered modernism? Green brutalism? Concrete jungle? The city is a garden and city-making is gardening: it requires constant care, should be suited to its situation so it doesn’t whine for extra resources, takes generations of cultivation, and requires a real sensitivity to sort out the weeds from the volunteer pink petunias. Oh, and it needs sparrows.