2.18.2010

This will kill that...

Thanks to Victor Hugo we have this powerful phrase: “this will kill that.” In Hugo’s world the demonstrative pronouns, this and that, represented the book and architecture respectively. This is always the thing near at hand, proximate to the speaker; that is at a distance. I never quite bought his argument, frankly. In my world architecture and the book live very different lives, and can both live long happy ones without inflicting mortal damage on the other. But the phrase seems to be the mantra of the modern, even when it isn’t quoted directly.

I started ruminating on that Monday during a studio pin-up at WAAC. Our studio— named “Utopia 2.0” with a side order of wit and irony—is interrogating the now 50 year old former urban renewal area of Southwest Washington to imagine what its next 50 years might be. Our students, Washington newcomers all, produced vivid and provocative images as they searched for a graphic language to tell the complex physical, social and cultural story of this place. A continuing theme of our discussions, as would be expected, was the conviction that some authentic community was destroyed by the construction of the brave new modern world. This will kill that, said the Redevelopment Land Agency.

We cautioned the students, though, not to romanticize the lives of the pre-renewal residents. One of the students spoke admiringly of the populations of immigrants and freed slaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries putting in long days of honest labor, sharing the spaces and streets of the traditional urban fabric. Glen Murcutt once said that air conditioning killed architecture, and, he might have added, the city. An old rowhouse in Washington would turn itself inside-out come summer, spilling its residents onto front stoops and sleeping porches. An air-conditioned rowhouse—even with the greenest geothermal cooling system, cocoons its inhabitants in dry comfort and quiet. Who among us, come August, would trade our private comfort for communal sweat in the name of urban liveliness? This will kill that, roared the Carrier.

With many of the houses razed for the Southwest renewal lacking indoor plumbing and running water, theirs was a community by necessity, a sharing of things that those with a choice rarely choose to share. Shared toilets and washing are rarely considered urban amenities, except as archaeological ruins. The beautiful fountains near which we cultural consumers sip grappa in Mediterranean cities were the sole sources of water for drinking and washing not too many years ago. This will kill that, gurgled the plumbing to the piazza.

I exaggerate of course, as is my habit, but technologies that improve our individual lives often destroy our collective lives. Why go outside if your own home provides a satisfaction of every need and desire? Why go downtown if the commerce and civic participation can all be attended to at home? There’s a troubling question still in my mind, revealing a crack of inherent contradiction between green building and sustainable community: does a better interior kill the exterior? Does the private kill the public?

2.05.2010

Sempiternity

I’m a subway situationalist, choosing my colors depending on the circumstances: a delay on Red, and I walk all the way from home to Foggy Bottom to take Blue to Alexandria; train too crowded for comfort, I’ll hop off my home-bound Red at Farragut North and walk north up Connecticut. Sometimes I’ll skip the quick plunge from the Building Museum to Judiciary Square and walk to Gallery Place, just to enjoy the scene. But I do enjoy ascending from Judiciary and seeing the great fa├žade of the Museum framed in the escalator well. This morning I exited at Gallery Place and walked along the relatively quiet, pre-blizzard street reflecting on how the city changes and yet remains itself.

The snow may be bearing down on us like a white version of that black smoke thing from Lost, but the hockey game will go on tonight as scheduled. The Caps are on a tear and I’m sure the arena will be rocking. Besides, it would be ironic for a hockey game to be cancelled for snow. There’s nothing quite like walking along F Street from the Building Museum to Gallery Place Metro when there’s a game, a performance at the Harmon, and the Portrait/SAAM is still open. The streets are full of all kinds of people, the restaurants are packed, Metro is abuzz.

And to think, there was opposition to the arena. It was too big, its architectural language confused and, almost unforgivably, it required the closing of a street and thus did violence to the L’Enfant Plan. Historic preservation, as I’ve written before, has a difficult relationship with progress, especially when the lovability index is high. No one was particularly in love with the area around 6th and G in the 1990’s, but the L’Enfant Plan is the object of blind devotion among many. (I myself have a crush on it) But the city we inhabit today has many authors; L’Enfant just wrote the opening lines. We should call it the L’Enfant/Ellicott/Banneker/McMillan/Kennedy/Moynihan/Pollin/Tregoning/et alia plan because each generation is reading the city it inherits and writing its own contribution. Less “exquisite corpse” than wiki, the city is an on-going series of narratives, propositions, and corrections. It is a sempiternal.

I learned that word from Federica, my last PhD student. (That’s last as in “most recent” and last as in “not getting anymore” because VT now, logically, requires that PhD committee members actually have a PhD and I don’t) “Sempiternity” is the life span of building, the duration of time between our own life spans and imponderable eternity. Federica’s case study was the Basilica of St. Peter’s, which gave her a couple thousand years of context and at least a few centuries for close examination. Her dissertation, which would actually make a great novel in an “Agony and the Ecstasy meets Angels and Demons” kind of way, holds a mirror to conventional preservation wisdom for a long honest look. Restoration “as was” and preservation “as is” prevent a vision of architecture and the city “as could be.” Caring for buildings, whether officially historic—whatever the heck that is—or just plain old, can’t proceed in fear of change. A building's identity accrues over time with contributions from every, renovation, adjustment, and repair; the architect only wrote the first line.

Federica’s challenge is to the care of historic buildings in particular, but it’s the city where we see it in action. What a shame it would have been if the construction of the arena had been stopped because it threatened the “as was” of the city. Sure it’s a flawed building...they’re all flawed...but look around! The Washington Post’s coverage of the opening of the arena in 1997 is a fascinating look back at what feels like ancient history. The article quotes Irene Pollin, widow of the late Abe Pollin whose vision and action shaped this new “as is”: “Maybe some day soon, we'll all be strolling up F Street again," she said. "Beautiful F Street,” and the thousands cheered.