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.


You know the story I’m sure: guilty conscience of New York liberal leads to radical lifestyle change, then book, then film. Like Morgan Spurlock’s month of McDonalds, chronicled in Supersize Me, Colin Beavin’s year-long experiment in net-zero impact living can easily be dismissed as a stunt. Frankly, that was my reaction. I have feared, and still do now that the film is out, that the impact No Impact Man may make take the form of a backlash. After all, the fear of all complacent consumers and climate change skeptics is that we green police will force a life of sacrifice and austerity on everyone else. So, not only is it not easy being green, but it’s a miserable slog the rewards of which are limited to smug self-righteousness. Is that about right?

Of course, No Impact Man is making an impact, which is part of the irony of his moniker. No one really desires to make no impact, do they? In the same issue of the Washington Post today was a sobering article, buried on page 4, summarizing the just released findings of a UNEP report. Turns out things are in fact much worse than we thought: global temperatures are rising far more quickly than thought even two years ago. We’re all making a huge impact individually and collectively and that is exactly the problem. Beavin’s impact is less as a role-model for reducing our negative impact than as a provocateur to get us all first to reflect on our ingrained habits and second change what we can in our own circumstances. My husband likes to cite a tidbit of conventional wisdom he heard once, that doing something three times pretty much ingrains it as a habit. That applies to habits good and bad: open that bag of chips, three days in a row? Bad habit. Eat an apple instead? Good. And good habits eclipse bad. But we have to first really see, really know, what our habits are, and that’s the value of No Impact Man.

Beavin’s wife Michelle makes a guest appearance on his blog, and while confessing her own bad habits and recidivist tendencies, describes the “point of the project was to be radical: to go completely off the grid, drop out of the culture, and see what would emerge.” As a laboratory experiment it’s interesting, but life isn’t really about dropping out and off. Isolationism in the pursuit of green is no virtue, because isolationism is no virtue period. Unraveling the skein of sustainability requires a broad and diverse set of tools; sacrifice and altruism only get us so far. We have to begin to replace destructive habits with constructive ones, increase our positive impacts. As the UNEP report makes clear, just being less bad isn’t enough anymore.


architecture is in the world

Here's my question: If a weekly blogger misses a post on Thursday, and knows she'll miss another one on the next Thursday, does a post on the Tuesday between count for both? You see my problem...I didn't post anything last week as loyal readers--and I know at least one of you is out there--know. Why? Well, I spent most of the day last Thursday talking.

I had hopes for a quiet fall, with activities associated with Green Community starting to taper off toward closing next month. My work on the book done, all I needed to do was await publication and have that delicious moment of holding it in my hands. Ha. Nothing quiet about this fall. As part of the gearing up for the publication of the book the folks at APA have got my co-editor Tim Mennel and I interviewing our contributors for later podcast on their, and the Museum's, website.

Last Thursday I did 3 phone interviews. I'm not complaining; it was great fun really. What's not to like about calling up experts and talking to them about their work? Our 30-40 minute conversations will be edited down to 5-8 minute podcasts. (how did these mini-audio events get that name? I wasn't casting from a pod when I made the calls, and one need not be pod-laden to enjoy them. It seems we just stick "i" "e" or "pod" onto any word and it sounds real futurey) I got to talk to Carolyn Steel in London about communities, architecture and food; Esther Sternberg about communities and architecture that can heal us or harm us; and Mary Rickel Pelletier about communities, architecture and water. Turns out all three of them either began their lives in architecture, remain there still, or have found their way to architectural research. All three have in their hands their own keys to the gate of architecture, despite the gatekeepers attempt to keep the discipline pure and autonomous.

There's a strong tradition that Architecture, wearing its capital "A" like a crown, should occupy a rarefied station as art, as critique, as intellectual pleasure. It takes liberally from other equally rarefied disciplines like philosophy or linguistics but only at its fringes does it dirty its hands with reality. All three of my interviewees challenged Architecture--as practice, profession and product--to throw off the capital A and get to work.

As a beginning grad student I used think of Architecture that way. Nothing delighted me so much as deciphering one of Eisenman's games, or sniffing out regulating lines. But it got old and began to seem pretty irrelevant; heck, even Eisenman's moved on and designed a football stadium. By the time I began my teaching career I struggled with the responsibility of teaching the discipline while reminding students that they served something other than their own egos. The really scary truth is that architecture has immense power to harm and to heal.

In the winter of 90-91 Steve Badanes (aka Jersey Devil)opened a lecture at the Catholic University by asking the stunned crowd "how many of you think this war is about architecture?" That was the first Gulf War, but we didn't know then that we'd need to number them. Those students are middle-aged now, and I'm right there ahead of them, and we should all rightly be asking ourselves the same question. But we have to add to it, after hearing the experts we're letting into our world:

How many of you think that health care is about architecture?

How many of you think the banking crisis is about architecture?
How many of you think that leaving no child behind is about architecture?
How many of you think that cash for clunkers is about architecture?

If you answered yes to all of the above then you've realized that, to paraphrase those rarefied deconstructionists I mentioned, that architecture is in the world and the world is in architectur


The Little House on the Lawn

There’s a little house on the lawn of the Building Museum. Virginia Tech’s Solar Decathlon crew rolled slowly into town before dawn on Wednesday September 2 and unloaded this elegant, hi-tech, hi-craft box onto the west lawn of the Museum where it will live for the next month before moving to its next home on the Mall. This is VT’s third trip to the Decathlon. Their 2002 house looked great but was balky. They came roaring back in 2005 with arguably the most beautiful house in the Solar village—I’m not biased, ask anyone—but that year was the Battle of the Batteries as rain and clouds hampered performance all around. They sat out 07 to focus on 09, and—I’m not biased—the result is a gem.

I spent a too-long lunch hour getting a quick tour of the Lumenhaus from Joe Wheeler, the architecture professor who breathes design and bleeds PV. Joe’s enthusiasm can make you want to put on the work gloves right there and pick up a screw gun...well, I would except for that 3 pm conference call and this darn blog that I make myself write every Thursday. So I went back upstairs to talk and write about green, while right outside an army of students and their faculty were sweating, tinkering, testing, and assembling the real deal.

In architecture we often talk about the problematic split between theory and practice, or as Michael Polanyi, who I wrote about last week, might put it, between “knowing what” and “knowing how.” It’s an old split in architecture, traceable back through Burnham, the Industrial Revolution, the Ecole, the Renaissance...and so on. It’s coated with class and status issues; those who “do”--who build, who work with their hands--occupy a lower status than those who instruct others in the manner of doing, who work with their minds. Yet, as Polanyi suggests, the best work in science or design comes not from rarified philosophizing or mindless assembling, but from a conversation between the physical and the intellectual work. Donald Schon, who builds on Polanyi’s writing, talks about this as a “reflective conversation with the situation.”

Design-build programs and practices are aimed directly at eliding that difference and at giving value to both kinds of knowing, and clarifying the reflecting-in-action in the crucible of construction. The Solar Decathlon is a particularly challenging form of design-build where all sorts of clever knowing what runs smack into knowing how. The architecture student who knows what looks cool, but can’t move past it to know how to make it work won’t last on the team. Likewise, the engineering student who knows what should be done but doesn’t know how it fits into the design. More subtle, anyone who is just sure they know what’s what and what’s best but doesn’t know how to communicate, cajole, and collaborate will come to the bitter realization that knowing what isn’t enough.

Every time the Solar Decathlon rolls into town I’m newly inspired and awed by what these students and their faculty can accomplish in such a demanding situation. It’s all a bit like an haute couture fashion show; these houses themselves are usually ill-suited to actual life, but the innovations and inventions they contain are already seeping into buildings. So, if you’re in town over the next month come on by the Museum and check out the Lumenhaus before it goes to the Mall. If you’re lucky you can see lots of teaching and doing as the team puts the finishing touches on the house.