7.27.2010

reflecting on coal cars

I was standing on the platform at King Street Metro Station, in that state of mental detachment and disattenuation familiar to transit users, when a freight train rumbled by on the neighboring tracks. Boxcars gave way to open top coal cars, one after another after another after another after another, headed south. It was one of those recently Hades-hot days in Washington, when the grid is groaning under the strain of the air conditioners. I started to wonder about the relationship between a single coal car and the average American house. How many coal cars, or what percentage of one, is necessary to power the average house? For a day? A year?

I have absolutely no idea what the answer is. I could, I suppose, find the data, do a bit of number crunching on my own and come up with an estimate. I could then spout that little factoid every chance I got, even yelling it through the open doors of over-cooled shoe stores. But what made it powerful as an act of my imagination was that I pictured it: I pictured a coal car in every driveway, maybe two in the long curving McDriveways of McMansions, and wondered if the aesthetic consequences might be a motivator for change. Neighborhoods regularly ban boats, RV’s and trucks from driveways as being aesthetically unacceptable. What would the taste police at the Homes at Rocky Rill Overlook Brookside Crest Riding Ridge have to say about a coal car in every driveway? How many might there be in front of multi-family housing? More or less per occupant? What if you added an oil tanker truck to account for the car(s)? What would our cities and towns look like if we could see, really see?

My next project at the National Building Museum is just getting started. Sort of Green Community meets Tools of the Imagination, it will be about seeing information, using visual metaphors and metonymies like the coal car to show connections, correlations, and causations. Aristotle described metaphor as that rhetorical figure that places things before our eyes, makes the invisible visible. He would have had a field day with geospatial technologies and infographics. While we have unprecedented tools to show, rather than tell, these technologies are answering ancient desires: to know the relationship of what to where, of when to whom, or how many. This will be our research for the next year +, so Gang Green will get a bit of a tune up and re-positioning to serve that project. So, stay tuned...and if you know the answer to the coal car question, don’t tell me. Show me.