I had a desk crit recently with a student who doesn't exactly seem ready to assume the responsibilities of being an architect. With exactly 4 full days between our 30 minute conversation and his final reckoning on Monday, he gamely tried to explain to me what he was doing. I withheld the obvious criticism that “explaining” was not what one should be doing at this point in the semester; one’s drawings and models should be doing the talking. Instead I poked around the edges of his words and scribbles, looking for a way in, a way to mount both a critical assessment of what he was doing and offer a few clear suggestions of what he needed to do. I was slightly more tactful than I’m being here, asking what his priorities were and how he intended to achieve them.
What made his proposal so infuriating was the wastefulness of it all. Wastefulness makes bad architecture; yet frugalness is no guarantee of good architecture. And that’s a tough bit of asymmetry to explain. This is the Righteousness Pass dilemma; it afflicts the real world as well as the academic world, but it poses a particular problem in school. Students try to inoculate themselves from rigorous criticism by taking on the design of shelters for the homeless or the battered, community centers for marginalized neighborhoods, housing for the poor, and even net-zero energy buildings. They are hoping that their focus on those unquestionably important issues will give them a pass for not addressing issues of quality of construction, appropriateness of materials, context, place-making, structure, and, well, beauty.
The flip side of the Righteousness Pass, let’s call it the Coolness Pass, is worse, though, and all too typical in academic settings: a shower of praise falls on students who make things formally attention-getting and trendy and then use the coolest of the cool tools to present. Do we ask them if this is a responsible use of materials, this ribbon of core-ten steel they pretend can be floor, wall, and roof with nary a joint or crumb of insulation? Do they think that because the expansive shiny blank walls look cool on screen that perhaps the imaginary inhabitants deserve natural light and air? The fly-through of a digital model has become the opiate of the profession. They get a pass for distracting us from the responsibility of the architectural endeavor itself. And, with a half dozen more students to see that afternoon, we weigh just how deeply we want to wade in, whether this student is ready to hear it. He was not ready to hear, didn't want to hear it; he was hoping for the Coolness Pass.
I also spent a half hour at the desk of another student who is closely attending to the profound genius loci of her chosen site. Her project is reaching a level of maturity that demands patient study, even by her critics, which is a challenge. It can not be apprehended or understood in a glance. Nearing the end of her thesis year, she is wrestling with what she believes she owes her site and project, living up to the rules she set for herself. She realizes, a little wistfully, that she’s left behind a flashier set of undergrad values. She doesn't need a Pass. She's making architecture.
Architecture is hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Each of these students illustrate to me the truth of Braungart’s other point: we can easily find ourselves doing the wrong thing perfectly, if we don’t make the effort to understand what the right thing is. The misguided formalist is, unfortunately aspiring to doing the wrong thing perfectly; his imagination is full of perfect wrong things which he mistakes for “good architecture.” The hard truth is that he's not working hard enough at it to even get the Coolness Pass, which he may one day recognize as a blessing in disguise. The thesis student, though, is drawing toward the right thing, literally and metaphorically. Being “green” isn’t at the top of her list as a separate issue, but stewardship of the situation is, and so green is subsumed in a larger paradigm. She is a humble petitioner for resources, offering a promise to the commons that she will use them for something of value. When a student gets the priorities right, and embraces green as integral to the good, then the lenses of architectural intention, formal strategy, and means, all snap into focus, trained on the physical/social/cultural situation. Then, there’s good architecture.
Happy Earth Day, I thought. I turned on the coffee maker. I opened the refrigerator. I turned a light. Oh, and of course, my hot water for my shower came from the electric water heater. I turned on NPR and listened to the latest news. I just can’t get going in the morning without my electricity!
None of us can, which is why there’s a lot of concern these days about the price of energy, and whether now is or is not the time to push through various pieces of legislation to regulate carbon emissions, or encourage renewable energy. In this morning’s Washington Post Bill Gates himself and Chad Holliday make a strong case for more investment in energy research from the government. Mr. Gates couldn’t be more correct, frankly, and I’m not just saying that because I am hopelessly dependent on Microsoft products to communicate with other sentient beings. He and his co-author are just two of the extremely smart people out there trying to make the case that the energy status quo is wholly unacceptable on almost every level. I had the chance to hear a few more this past Monday at the German Embassy.
I would have gone just for the chance to get into the building, a striking 1964 work by Egon Eiermann, because it was one of the few modern embassies that I hadn’t visited. But there were so many other reasons to hop the D6 bus uptown: speakers included Michelle Moore, landscape architect Herbert Dreiseitl, architect Stefan Benisch, and, live and in person, Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough…and that was just the morning session. Braungart, whom I had never heard speak before, left the podium and stood right in front of the audience, tossing one counter-intuitive thought after another at us. “There is no green architecture; there is only good architecture or bad architecture.” I’ve made similar points, here and elsewhere, but probably using more words and being more elliptical, so it was really refreshing to hear someone like Braungart say it better and more succinctly.
He also made the unassailable point that we have gotten quite good at making the wrong things perfectly, so we’re making things that are perfectly wrong. This is unfortunately all too true in the design professions, where we can optimize a type, trend, a trick, so efficiently that we never stop to ask whether this is in fact what we meant to do. Here in the comfort of the uber-first world, which is the life to which I was randomly assigned by fate, everything works so perfectly—my coffee maker, my lights, my radio, my computer—that I don’t even really see the true price of energy. Until, that is, my electrically powered radio tells me about more violence in the Persian Gulf, about a group of miners in West Virginia who have died for my convenience, and a group of oil riggers in the Gulf who have died for suburban sprawl. Now, let’s have an honest talk about the high price of energy…
But, to satisfy your Solar cravings until then, you can read my thoughts on some of the interesting stories from Decathlon's past in this month's NBM Online.
I was headed to Foggy Bottom for lunch, so I went west on G Street, happy for the bike lane that took me all the way to the Pennsylvania Ave Piazza. I love riding through that great swath of uber-public space, even if its generosity is a by-product of paranoia. It is at once bustling and tranquil, a setting for the passion play of democracy. I roll through, passing the guards, the families, the dark-suited Important People, the protesters and proclaimers, free from the tension of sharing the road with vehicles—heck, and people—that outweigh me. Out the west side, though, I’m tossed back into the mix of delivery vehicles, opening doors, stopped taxis, and giant trucks, so I weave from street to sidewalk and back, looking for safe passage.
Gee, I wish there were a bike lane here on Pennsylvania Avenue, widest of all the streets in Peter L’Enfant’s magnificent plan. If only he had been prescient enough to provide one. Without his guidance and direction who are we to stripe a pavement or set off a lane with bollards? Oh wait...we have striped pavement and speckled our streets with bollards! Look down --I know it’s hard with that dramatic vista demanding your attention—what’s this? Why, there’s white paint all over the place, dashed lines, hatching, stripes, arrows pointing every which way! OMG! Who let this happen? I can barely appreciate the latent monumentality surrounding me for all clutter. And bollards? We can’t use them for something as mundane as a bike lane. They’re only for establishing safety perimeters, and keeping vehicles away from places they don’t belong. Besides, we can’t put anything in the street that will detract from the historic view.
Okay, I’ve kept the sarcasm up long enough, time to get serious. First it was the objection to marking off a center bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue, then the wailing over the overhead wires for the streetcars. The former argument is just comical; we’ve become so inured to the wretched graphics of paint on asphalt that we’ve become blind to what’s already here but can’t extricate ourselves from the cognitive dissonance of objecting to more of the same. But the objections to the streetcar wires are of a different order altogether. Beneath the veneer of the historic preservation objection lurks a less beneficent project, the aestheticization of reality...and that is a very slippery slope. It ends in the strip mining of “historic” leaving “preservation” raw and exposed, devoid of whatever larger cultural consensus gave it authority. What's so historic about asphalt and cars anyway? Is that what we're preserving?
Even on its own terms, this urban purification has inconsistencies. Outlawing overhead wires of any kind valorizes the visual above all the other haptic experiences of the city. Can’t we give clear, emission-free air equal billing with the open vista? Well, sooner or later the vista will be obscured by the polluted air anyway, but it will happen so slowly, like that darn frog in the boiling water, that one day visitors might wonder what we are all supposed to see down those broad avenues. In that way, “vista” will become its own oxymoron.
At the risk of sounding like I'm in the confessional: forgive me readers, for it has been more than two weeks since my last post. I have been writing other things, all of which have more stringent external deadlines than gang green's guilt-inducing self-imposed deadline. Sometimes my other writing feeds the blog, but not always. You might think that writing other things would produce enough material to fill a blog. It’s just 500 lousy words, after all. How hard is that? In the course of writing anything I pile up heaps of unused words. They just lie there, crossed out yet still present in Word mark-up form, saved as one draft after another. Why can't all those words be re-purposed?
In this way writing is a lot like designing. In both activities you have to generate far more stuff than you will be able to fit into the procrustean frame of the final product. And even the product contains more than you put it in, which is what makes creative endeavors so magical. They make more than they consume. That’s what gives value to art, music, poetry and architecture. Marx and a whole gaggle of political economists have used the phrase “surplus of value” in the context of labor, exploitation, wages and prices of things, but that’s only relevant in an exchange economy. Architecture has a surplus of value; that’s what makes architecture architecture. That value, or worth, can’t be accounted for in an exchange economy; it lives in a gift economy.
I wrote about similar issues coincidentally almost exactly a year ago. That post was more about Jane Jacobs’ guardians and merchants, as described in Systems of Survival, and less about the objects of their respective activities, gifts and commodities. I threatened then to write about gift theory and its bearing on architecture and sustainability at some point in the future...but this is not that point, except tangentially. What I’m struggling with now is efficiency. Not so much personally, but the attempt to plant the value of efficiency, which thrives in a commodity economy, into the unprepared soil of the gift economy. I’m wrestling with the whole uncritical valorization of efficiency in the sustainability conversation without really coming to terms with the consequences. Lurking somewhere at the intersection of our adolescent crush on digital communications and technophiliac greening is a reduction, a devaluation, of the experience of being somewhere. I’ve made the point often that architecture—anything designed, really—is the act of converting natural resources into cultural resources through human ingenuity and technology. If that conversion is judicious, prudent, and conservative—in the literal, not political sense—then it isn’t a reduction but an amplification.
I will admit that this is a pretty inchoate post and that the recent events and conversations that have inspired it remain in my head and thus unavailable for viewing. So, let’s just tie this up with some concise—efficient?—metaphors...A piano reduction is a very efficient way to communicate the basic structure of a symphony, but it should not be mistaken for the complete work, and no amount of imagining the full orchestration can replace the experience. In the same way, viewing a digital slide show of Ansel Adams’ photographs on your IPhone may give you a good idea of what he photographed, but it gives you very little experience of the photographs. For that you have to go somewhere, stand there, and gaze at the real thing. Inefficient, but true.