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.
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
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.