Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Bigger Picture



The scene:  Beginning of the workweek at an architect’s studio  somewhere in  Northern  California.  The seasoned old architect/mentor is greeted by his protégé, a young intern not long removed from architecture school lingering at the architect’s drawing table:

I.                   Good Morning, Boss.

A.        How’s it going Michelangelo?

I.                   You really think I’m doing that well?  This is pretty flattering...

A.        Don’t let it go to your head…I’m not an infallible judge of character, let alone world-class artistic genius.

I.          Have you got a few minutes?   I’ve been  thinking  about something and  I’d like  to  run it by you.  Is this an OK time?

A.        It’s fine, what’s on your mind?

I.        I’ve  been  thinking  a  lot  lately about good  and  bad.  It  seems like everything,  every architect, and everyone else for that matter...in spite of their stature and    accomplishments always have their flaws and shortcomings…where are the great role models?  I was thinking about Louis Kahn with all his poetic insight into humanity and architecture and here he had two different families and was running two different households.  Our founding fathers, Washington,  Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin all had plenty to criticize.  What do you say about that?

A.        And you’re just now noticing that the world’s not perfect? Man is a complex  creature with a whole range of qualities and potentials, and they range from the saintly to the horrific.  And then there are women. 

I.          Dishonesty, infidelity, segregation…

A.        I think it’s presumptuous to think one can stand in another’s shoes, especially if he or she is from a different generation or culture.  Looking back on different   times and different places and making moral judgments is iffy at best.  We’re all very much influenced by our upbringing and the time surrounding us.  So what do  we do with the hand we are dealt?  In any event whatever criticism may be laid against us does not negate whatever positive achievements we’ve made.

            I suspect that 200 years from now many of our progeny will look back and wonder how we could have had some of the thoughts you and I accept today as perfectly normal.  Perhaps herding animals for slaughter, fighting wars in the  name of religion or philosophy…It’s pretty short sighted to judge the totality of someone’s life just because that life includes sins.  It’s probably important,  however, that the good of a life’s work outweighs the bad.

I.          And who is going make those decisions?   Good or bad…how good and how bad?   I suppose in a free society it’s up to individuals to figure that out on their own.  It  obviously makes sense that we would want our positive actions to outweigh the negative ones.

            Do we keep tally on a kind of life long score card?  We could give Jefferson a few pluses and minuses on his personal life and more pluses for his architectural and political accomplishments.

A.        When you’re talking far reaching affects on huge swaths of humanity I’d give  him more than a few pluses.  Maybe a few for architecture and a few more for the University of Virginia, but writing the Declaration of Independence would be far off the charts.  Judging his personal life is a shot in the dark.  Viewpoints and times are always changing – I believe Bob Dylan said that.  Life’s quality is  inversely proportional to human quantity – I said that!

I.          Quite poetic.  Who’d have thought.

A.        And to think I actually had to take dumbbell English.  In my world we need to  focus on the thought and skill which results in the positive and disregard labeling and name calling: brutalist, transcendentalist, racist, liberal, conservative…

            Another thought:  stick with what you know.  If you establish a point of  anchorage and move out from there you can occasionally look back and evaluate  the direction you are heading.

I.          That sounds good, but finding an anchor point is surely a lot easier said than done.

A.        Fair enough.  It might not be easy and it probably won’t just happen overnight.  You think and work and reflect and eventually something begins to merge out of  the ether.  

I.          Ohoooooo…

A.        It’s not ethereal, but it’s not simple, formulaic thinking either.  In fact it’s only partially thinking…and partially feeling and partially demanding…

I.          Demanding what?

A.        Demanding or insisting to be a step beyond the status quo.  This is Steve Martino, Mike Reynolds, Smiljan Radic - not the popular group think magazine serving of  the month.

I.          I’m losing track of what we’re even talking about.

A.        We’re talking about the ability to use peripheral vision.  To see beyond the short sighted narcissism that is commonplace, and grapple with the bigger picture. Too many of us view the world as little more than a snapshot of what is in it for us…for right now…with no sense of the past or future.

I.          I’m not sure I would recognize the bigger picture even if I saw it.

A.        Try harder.  Why don’t you start searching on your work station right about now?


Friday, September 1, 2017

Letters to a Young Architect: You Might Wonder




When you see references to the erosion of our freedom and quality of life, whether from me or others, you might wonder what the concern is all about.  After all, most of the referenced issues seem small and of little real consequence in light of the big picture of life,  and they arguably provide some benefits to society in any event:  for instance things like higher, more restrictive, and safer guardrails on houses, water and energy reductions for plumbing fixtures and appliances, solar orientation encouragement for new construction.  One concern is that the proliferation of new code requirements are seemingly unending.  The constant direction by those who think they know what is best for the rest of us spreads like the slow flow of molasses.  It’s like the parable of the frog placed in warm water that is very slowly heated with the end result that the unsuspecting frog never realizes that he has eventually been cooked to death.
 


California is presently striving to achieve net zero energy consumption for new houses.  Less use of our limited earthy energy sources (gas, electricity, wood) is apparently a good thing.  Right?  Absolutely, but think about the bottom line governing reason for transitioning to more plentiful energy sources. It’s pragmatic, shortsighted and self-serving:  to be able to squeeze in more people.  The nearby landscapes (and other species’ habitats) can be developed into more housing units and shopping centers and this is  where shortsightedness comes into play.  We may save some energy usage, but each additional person brings huge impacts on other freedoms and quality of life.  Not only does and will these new requirements  severely limit a plethora of choices from orientation of glass to selection and use of materials to the way houses are heated and cooled and water is used in every fixture, but it almost always implies that this is somehow good for one and all. Really?  Is the orientation of glass always best if it works well with solar gain?  What about privacy or views?  Does the State know what materials you should be surrounded by or how you should heat or cool your house?  Does the State really know how high your guardrails and handrails should be?  The growing number of regulations results in corresponding reductions  of both individual freedom and quality of life.
 


Rather than addressing the problems with more people controlled by less freedom and less quality of life why not strive for less people resulting in more freedom and more quality of life?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

What are we thinking? Or Are we?

Browsing through the fashion literature in a San Francisco waiting room recently I was struck by the pervasive narcissism of so much of humanity. Pondering the superficiality of what is being offered as models for admiration made me long for fashion more down to earth.  Is high fashion truly cool?  Do these images represent values you respect or want your children to aspire to?  Beyond the obvious affectation and self-centeredness is a lack of modesty and an awareness that the world doesn’t really revolve around them…or any of the rest of us.


For us to live the high life, or even the not so high life, requires enormous systems of supply and refuse, the functionality of which depends on highly organized machine-like efficiency.  These are systems that are typically kept out of sight and out of mind…and for good reason: they can be deeply disturbing…and they are growing steadily as our unbridled population spreads out over the countryside.
 


Efforts like reducing carbon emissions or water usage, while perhaps commendable in their own right, are only treating symptoms of an underlying problem. Consider our endless efforts to control and conserve water while simultaneously accepting the growth of more people.  If we restrict water usage but allow population to grow the result is more and more people using less and less water.  Our feckless leaders, who probably don’t know any better, just keep kicking the can down the road.  But that is only the tip of the iceberg because providing water allows for additional human beings and this has far greater impact on earth’s resources than just water.  Consider the following, as I partially listed in “Footprints in Tomorrow’s Mud” (5-1-14), the average American in an average lifetime will:

Use 1.8 million gallons of water
Burn 31,350 gallons of gasoline
Discard 64 tons of garbage to landfills
Use 29,700 pounds of plastic
Use 43,371 aluminum cans
Eat 7000 animals
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera


Multiply that by 340 million Americans and the impact on our planet’s resources, as well as our supply and refuse systems, becomes obvious.


When I see satellite images of our cities overrunning the natural landscape with asphalt, concrete, and lights I can’t help but draw parallels to medical images of viruses overrunning healthy tissue.  Cities will surely dominate our future, but I hope our cities can be restrained and be parts of the larger natural landscape rather than country or planet-wide megalopolises sprinkled with token parks and wildlife refuges.  We may be the dominant species, but we should nevertheless modestly remember that we are still just a species among species and that the planet belongs to all of us.  Doesn’t it?