More Glass Room

“The slow slide of the pane downwards as though to remove the barrier that exists between reality and fiction, the fabricated world of the living room and the hard fact of snow and vegetation. There is a pause during which the two airs stand fragile and separate, the warmth within shivering like a jelly against the wall of cold outside. And then this temporary equilibrium collapses so that winter with a cold sigh intrudes, and, presumably, their carefully constructed, carefully warmed interior air is dispersed into the outside world.”

Wow. Read it again...don’t read my bland prose yet.

And, one more time.

That’s on page 5 of Simon Mawer’s book The Glass Room, a fictionalized tale of Mies’s Tugendhat House, here called the Landauer House. I was part of a Readers’ Review discussion of the book on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday morning and felt today as if I still had some thoughts about the book to work through.

The structure of the book uses the familiar device of opening in the present, with the reader ignorant of how the characters got to this point, and then time spins back to trace their complex paths, finishing as if in a loop, where it began. After I finished the book I made the loop myself and re-read the opening chapter, enjoying a second time that passage on page 5. I won’t summarize the book here, or my comments about it; you should read it yourselves and just stream the program at WAMU.

If you know the house then you can picture that “slow slide” of the window. You may have heard about that device in architectural history. Or perhaps it was part of a section on architectural technology, where all of the ambitious yet flawed ideas for modern envelopes were discussed, like the double glazing for Le Corbusier’s Salvation Army HQ, Frank Lloyd Wright’s leaky glass tubes at Johnson Wax. Unless you had a more eloquent professor than I, however, you never heard architectural technology and building environmental systems described so elegantly.

Two paradoxes of modern architecture are unfurled through the narrative, and they are both related to glass: the first is timelessness and atemporality, and the other transparency and blindness. Glass, index of the eternal present of the modern, is probably the most resistant to aging of all building materials. It takes an act of violence to damage it. So the Glass House persists in its eternal present as the entire world around it is in revolution. Architecture or revolution. I had noticed while reading that every time the story is physically set in the house the narration is in the present tense. When the scene shifts to Vienna or Zurich, the past tense appears. There’s a quote on page 327 that confirmed my reading of the eternal present:

“The philosopher has decided that past and future are both illusions, that there is only a continuous present, and the present is this view through the window over the city, this cigarette, this vague and milky reflection...”

The city below changes; the light through the window changes; the trading between seeing and being seen changes; but the glass itself doesn’t. Until, it is lowered into the floor and then for just a moment, there’s a thickness of nothingness where the glass once was, between the cold outside and warm inside. But what is the quality of that ½” of air? In the page 5 quote it’s a figural void, but just for a moment, then the worlds collide. For all of its valorization of abstraction, its devotion to technology, its ideological aspirations, architecture is first and always a sensual experience.


I’m a bag lady. I have bags stashed all over my house. The former shopping bag are in a cabinet under the kitchen counter: the innumerable Peapod bags (see my post on that one from last year) wadded up and awaiting re-purposing as garbage bags; an obscurely hip black paper bag with “See Artists” stenciled across it from the artists’ opening in London last summer, now empty of its weird assortment of freebies, including a ceramic tile with a stenciled fairy, and a handful of neo-Dada lapel buttons, some obscene; a shiny white bag from the Japanese Embassy, which came with a beautiful book on Japanese architecture; another black bag—clearly the color of hipness—from a trendy boutique in Chicago where under great peer pressure I bought an uncharacteristically fashionable dress (on sale); and of course, a selection of Ann Taylor and Comfort One bags, serviceable but quotidian.

In a drawer live the smaller bags that get re-purposed as lunch bags: two little Starbucks bags, each with instructions I am obviously following to save and re-use; a stiff pale blue plastic-y bag that swaddled a single lipstick from one of those specialized cosmetic stores; a stiff orange plastic-y bag from Misha’s in Old Town (coffee of the gods) which still gives a contact caffeine high; and a surprisingly robust, yet overly ornate for my taste, bag from a Thai carry-out.

Those are all technically “disposable” bags. Then there are the heaps of canvas, nylon, and other mystery fabric bags that are de rigueur at conferences and conventions. After years of a grant supporting student exchanges in North America I have a full set of Mexican, US and Canadian bags with the crests of their respective ministries of education; two handy drawstring backpacks from the Environmental Film Festival; dark blue and boxy canvas from some architectural metalwork supplier; dark blue and flat from the Graduate School at USDA and from Detail Magazine (not to be confused with Details magazine, a mistake made by one of our school librarians a few years ago who surely wondered why it was so essential that we have that subscription). The list goes on...

The most recent ones are of course in shades of green as if to signify that this isn’t just a bag to carry the product literature, free jump drive/laser pointer/ballpoint pen sets, and DVDs on drainage, no this is a Bag with which you will signify your resourcefulness. I fall for it every time. Hey, I think, that’ll come in handy. That’s why I’m so happy that the District has instituted the nickel-a-bag policy for food and drink. My bag-ness is vindicated. I’ve been lugging around the same one for a while now. It’s bright green and has nothing written on it, so only I know where it came from. If only I could remember. I also carry one of those self-storing singularities in my purse, as readers know already, and can snap it open with the speed and finesse of a geisha flipping a fan.

Five cents, though. Five. I was trying to be righteously bag-ful before and now, because I’m also cheap, I make sure I’m always prepared. But I’m what you might call highly-motivated to support such efforts. So I can’t help but wonder if a nickel is enough to change peoples’ behavior or if it will just become the new normal and cease to make any difference at all. Our entire tax structure, from the tax breaks to sin taxes is based on the assumption that each of us has an internal trigger that will change our behavior if the cost of continuing is sufficiently persuasive. Sin taxes are supposed to discourage socially questionable behavior, like smoking and drinking (watch for a fat tax soon), but is that what really keeps people from doing those things? I’ll be honest, I’ve never looked at my liquor store receipt and thought, my gosh look at the tax on wine! I better quit drinking.

On the other hand look at the price of gas. When it was at its peak—summer of 08, right when we were finalizing the Green Community text—people did cut back on driving. Yet, they have snapped back, even though it’s still high...I guess, I don’t actually pay attention, not being a driver and all...and the new normal has been reset higher. As I reflect on my own motivations and behavior, I wonder: are there penalties or taxes that would really push me to change? I’m already a bag lady, so not the nickel. Don’t own a car, so not a gas tax. General carbon tax? We keep our heat set just above where our refrigerator is set, and I’m already cheap, so, no. There are two things, though, where only my sense of green-ness currently keeps me at all focused on conservation: trash and water.

Our condo has a collective water bill, so it’s paid by our management company as a big lump sum. When one of our neighbors has a leaky pipe or faucet their only incentive to fix it is either their annoyance threshold or when the leak does sever damage to their downstairs neighbor, as has happened. Until that, the worth of water remains unknown. Same with the trash. We lug things to the dumpster and the recycling bins and every few days it all disappears and we fill them again. I would guess that no one in our building knows what it costs to dispose of our stuff, except for the officers on the board, and even they would have to look it up.

Does it really have to hurt? Are negative enforcements more powerful than positive? What if each of us who brought our own bag to the store got a nickel back, a little reward for being both resourceful and prepared? Wow, a nickel here, a nickel there...pretty soon you’re talking about a dollar. And last time I checked that was still, in fact, money.


Failure to Communicate, part 2

If the drawings, models and other images that architects make form a language, then they live as other languages do in a world of grammar and meaning, capable of communicating everything from scientific specificities to poetic pluralities. They are also capable of describing, wishing, promising and outright lying. In the case of our problematic perspective which represents a possible world as if real, it’s worth asking if it is a performative or a seduction.

A performative is a kind of utterance, such as an oath or a promise, which does what it says. To say “I pledge allegiance...” is to pledge allegiance; to say “I promise” is likewise to promise. Of course, that’s where the action ends; the fulfillment of the promise itself is unfortunately outside of the boundaries of language. For example, I once promised to help others and be a sister to every other Girl Scout, I’m not sure I can claim to have done what I promised. But some performatives can be assessed for completion. If I promise to bring the beer to band practice, but fail to do so my future performatives may become suspect. The promise remains, in memory, as does its power to shape future behavior.

Now, a seduction is not technically a category of utterance, at least according to my sources, but it makes a useful rhetorical contrast for my purposes here. It may not always be clear in the moment whether something is an oath or a seduction--such confusion is the source of endless plotlines in film and music: think Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light-- and one is rightly suspicious of the language, or image, that seems too glib, too good, too slick. In the CADmosphere the sky is always blue and the people translucent. Paul Patnode of the Environmental Simulation Center, with whom I shared a panel at the SIGGRAPH convention in New Orleans in August, distinguished between digital animations and digital simulations to the same end, suggesting that an animation is a seduction while a simulation is a performative. The animation, while in the guise of presenting a possible world, has discarded the responsibility of representing essential parts of reality. But a simulation becomes a kind of promise: this proposal will change the world thus. In this case all those elements of the world as it is are represented faithfully and the consequence of the new, not yet real, work changes the resonance of the possible like a note added to a chord.

When we represent a possible world we become responsible for everything in that world, inclusive of the kids, their balloons and the Mercedes, as constituents in the vision of what could be. The sharing of images of what could be, the essence of by-now familiar visual preference surveys, is the first step in motivating us to change. Change, as I’ve written about previously, is scariest as an abstraction. It becomes both doable and desirable when we can all envision how things might be. As architects take up the challenge—which they must do—to open the window to the view to better, sustainable worlds they need to reflect quite seriously on the difference between a performative and a seduction.


What we have here is a failure to communicate...

It may be an urban legend, or at least an architectural legend: Architect presents a design for a new house to client with a cool and convincing perspective rendering showing what the house will look like. House gets built and client calls architect threatening a lawsuit. Why? The Mercedes pictured in the curving drive has not been delivered yet. Ha ha. This is clearly a boom-time story, and it usually involves a description of said client as a high-roller, low-clue insert name of nouveau riche nationality du jour here. Everyone laughs...clients, geez, you can’t live with ‘em you can’t live without ‘em. And you obviously can’t leave ‘em by the curb when you’re done with ’em, as Steven Wright says, because that’s where the shiny Mercedes is supposed to be.

A perspective rendering, the mastery of which was the central narrative of western art for millennia, is a surprisingly complex beast in terms of exactly what it is saying and to whom. Not much more than a decade ago—it’s 2010 so we think in decades—architects would commission perspectivists at considerable cost to execute persuasive images of their buildings-to-be. Brunelleschian in their specificity, these lush images were usually out of date before the project was finished. Even with all sorts of dissembling about changes since the drawing was done, these images were still useful to show not only the building but the world that received it and was changed by it. In this way trees, human beings, atmospheres and, yes, a Mercedes or equal, were drafted into this new world both in support of and because of the building. The architects alone held the key to which of those elements to take literally and which to discount as “provided by others.” The Mercedes would belong to the latter category along with such kids with balloons as might happen to wander into the frame.

What we have here, as you’ve guessed from the Cool Hand Luke reference in the title, is a failure to communicate. This is no small matter as the gaps between what the various professions are saying about the imperative of sustainable design and what the public and policy makers are hearing are widening to crevasses. I wasn’t in Copenhagen—alas, I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing that city—but I can imagine the skew lines of proclaiming and posturing, neither parallel nor intersecting, as the scientists warn, the designers (if they were there) propose, the engineers invent, and the politicians cower. It’s really no surprise to anyone that nothing of substance came out of the meeting.

In Sunday’s Washington Post there was an opinion piece by Chris Mooney taking scientists to task for their inability and sometimes unwillingness to work on the craft of communicating with the public: “Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak...in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for the maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming.”

Now, let’s re-write that with the word “architect” replacing “scientist: Architectural training continues to turn out design professionals who speak in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many architects can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for the maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming.

Where are we the architects in these immensely important discussions over settlement patterns, infrastructure, zoning, energy? Don't we have something to contribute? We have a powerful language at our disposal, more powerful than the sciences and policy makers have. We are masters of the visual. Yet, as my opening anecdote indicates, we don’t always have command over the more subtle, the implicit, messages that our images convey, over the illocutionary forces of our utterances as the linguists would say. What we say when we draw and what we intend to say do not always coincide. I’ll delve into that in more detail next week, so stay tuned for part two...