Sunday, December 31, 2017

Design Review

This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in the architect’s Northern California studio.

I.          Are you ready?

A.        Certainly.

I.          Okay.  Here it is:  Design Committees.  They seem to be part of the status quo and I wonder what you have to say about them.  I know we joke about them, but…

A.        They’re really not a joking matter. Another layer of filter fabric. When you mention design committees I also think of their first cousins planning departments and   CC&Rs.  The good news is that they have helped preserve some of the nostalgic qualities of our built environments – I’m thinking of places like Santa Barbara, Ferndale, and The Sea Ranch here in California.  Without governing oversight they all would be infused with McDonalds, Jiffy Lubes and  Tuscan spec houses.  Remember our chats about diversity?  Well, here is a case for unity and you may remember that one of the perils of too much unity can be an inability to adapt to change.  How do you like solar panels on those Santa Barbara moss and lichen covered Spanish roof tiles?  Perhaps a bit incongruous.
            We are trying to  make sense of things with words and numbers and limited  insight…but that’s another story.  I think the most unfortunate part of  governing design review and intervention is  that while  it may help upgrade projects near the bottom of the barrel, it invariably also downgrades the cream near the top.   Work with vision  beyond the status quo doesn’t fit neatly into approved sets of pre-established rules and regulations and are all too often castigated because  of their  lack of congruity with them.

            Where design review really fails is in its inability to grapple with the underlying  big   picture issues. We humans are primarily visually oriented and it’s no surprise that most design review focuses on evaluating facades and appeasing neighbors.  Of vastly greater significance are intentions, responding to the spirit of the place, and adapting to the physical reality of the land itself.

I.          How do you design review a project’s “Spirit of the Place”?           

A.        You want to play hardball now?  Okay. Two hundred years ago there was more similarity between places – take houses for the sake of argument – because most inhabitants, their material availability, and their construction technology had a similarity about them. That is just not the case with a culture as fast changing and diverse as ours is today. Peoples’ dreams, preferences, and ideas of home can and are spread all over the map – literally.

I.          So what do you think is an appropriate response to today’s potpourri of styles? In the same town, if not the same neighborhood?

A.        The issue is one of values.  Rather than an agreed upon visual similarity –  like wearing private school uniforms – I favor searching for ways to make buildings as thoughtfully and skillfully as we can.  Some of us may actually do that,  but there      are many  among us  who just don’t care about doing things better.  I might be  more sympathetic to design reviews that nurtured sincerity, purpose, and intent   rather   than aesthetic judgments about roof slope, window placement, and impact on pre-existing neighbors who didn’t think their  project through sufficiently to begin with.  Let’s say we have a project which genuinely tries to embrace all these things, but the building, even its visual qualities – is still awful.  I suppose we then have to live with the design review’s determination as to whether there should be more visual unity or diversity.  It’s a little like relying on one’s union to help determine whether we should vote more progressively or conservatively.

I.          You know what I’m thinking?

A.        No, what?

I.          Animal Farm. You’re saying that there were the simple straightforward houses of the past gathered  into neighborhoods that tended to have a consistency brought about by  consistency of their circumstances – similar culture, economy, material availability, and so forth.  I think of traditional Italian hillside towns.  And then today it is not uncommon to have neighborhoods with somewhat diverse cultures and economies.   And of course material availability is primarily an economic issue.

A.        Exactly.  Greater economic status combined with exposure to a plethora of stylistic possibilities leaves the door wide open. And because we are so easily satisfied with appearances, whether real or not, the integrity of making buildings has diminished accordingly. And very few of us really notice or care.  By the way, a beautifully presented mini treatise on this issue is included in The Place of Houses’ discussion on Edgartown in Massachusetts.

I.          I’ll check it out, but let’s say there is a Spanish Hacienda set well back off the street, a  Western Ranch House, a Neutra, and a handful of Tuscan knock-offs. The owners are all good, well-meaning citizens.  Is there a problem?

A.        There is only a problem when viewed through the lens of our most successful  achievements with the built environment. In your scenario the individual buildings don’t seem to be working either with the landscape or with each other to achieve a greater whole.  This falls short by most people’s standards for grouping buildings.   Because of unprecedented rate of change and progress we are experiencing for us to know. Eventually all this probably has nothing to do with us – it’s probably some unknowable sphere of energy and indiscriminant  elements.

I.          Let’s not go there. 

A.        I like to think that in the next 10 to 100 thousand years human population will have  reduced to a few billion or so with a truly stable population (although still for only an epoch or two).  Half the other species will probably be extinct, but the remaining half  might be left to live their lives free from our continuous meddling and management.

I.          Do I sense the sliding scale of diversity, unity, order and chaos coming back into play here?

A.        It’s a Catch 22.  Progressives may argue for more localized diversity of people, but    wonder how they square this with localized diversity of flora and fauna.  Are zebra  mussels in the Great Lakes, boas in the Everglades, Pampas Grass along the Pacific coast a  positive thing?  Ecologically speaking the bottom line is whatever is most  conducive for survival…and that’s a future our eyes cannot see.

I.          So what about Design Review?

A.        I suppose we have to eat crow or swallow a bitter pill for now and hope for the best in the future because the process is beautiful, destructive, confused, and contradictory.  And if that synopsis doesn’t quite make sense then we can at least take  some solace in the thought that the universe and everything in it are not under any obligation to make sense to us anyway.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Between Order and Chaos

I.          I  was  thinking  about  chocolate ice cream in my freezer last night and  how in our studio we  usually don’t champion any one way of doing things. We usually try to at least think about the merits of opposing ways of seeing the world…

A.      I used to  find it interesting that  a design  problem could so often be  solved  by approaching it from diametrically opposed positions.  For example, if a form works well elongated in the north south direction it can be eye opening to force oneself to consider the merits, the pros and cons, of elongating it in the east west direction.  I say “used to” because over the years I’ve come to try not to look at the world in such a segmented way – now things seem to be part of some amorphous smear on a continuous Cartesian grid with our conception of right and wrong,  order and chaos,  black and white –  in continuous motion –  moving, changing and evolving through time…countless variations affected by countless nuances.

I.         That’s pretty weird, pretty ethereal; what about the value of a clear crisp statement?  That would be nice for the builder to hear, wouldn’t it?  It wouldn’t be bad for me to hear either.

A.        Clear crisp statements are necessary for decisive actions, but inevitably ignore the nuances that provide much life and color. So anything too definitive may be ideal at the moment, but maybe not so ideal at the next moment.  Does the phrase “the slow ones now will later be fast” ring a bell?

I.         No, but I get defining ourselves and setting some markers or guide posts for the future so we can judge how we’re doing with life and work.

A.        A narrow mindset, viewing the world with blinders, may be good in some instances, but it is almost certainly not the end-all.  Those that would have you believe otherwise are probably short on vision and just don’t know any better.

I.         Do you think we’re even on the same page? How do you square all this with our need for cultural diversity? 

A.        I think you just skipped a few pages.  All what?

I.          Everything; art, architecture, life, culture…

A.        Well, in this century you could easily argue in favor of less diversity. I don’t think  we are short on diversity.  It’s popular today to advocate human diversity and the explanation goes something like diversity is good because that is what the U.S. population has been made up of for the last three hundred years. Then the narrative stops –  no real analysis, no depth, no  downside …so here are a couple things to consider:

            First, diversity without order or control can quickly devolve into chaos.   I’m not sure there was much less diversity back then than there is today, but it’s much easier to have a strong, unified society with less diversity.  Here also unity can devolve into rigidity and an inability to adapt to changing conditions.  Obviously there is a Goldilocks zone between unity and diversity that serves the greatest good at any one time.  In architecture I think of these polarized states as order and   chaos.

            Second, assume we champion even more diversity of humanity.  Why are we doing so?  Just to be doing it?  The good and the bad? Do we also champion and encourage diversity of life itself? Do we have empathy for the other inhabitants of the planet and champion diversity and sufficient habitat for all species? 

I.          Do you mean animals like birds and banana slugs?  What about plants?

A.        I’d say diversity of life is more important than diversity of culture and the total array of life seems to be on a downward path.  The human diversity I’m talking about is tied to immigration and the addition of more people adds to a population that is already overburdened.  Our resources are dwindling, our quality of life is diminishing, native species are being marginalized and pushed to the brink of extinction, pollution is everywhere – the list goes on and on. We are already sufficiently diverse to assure a good mix of our gene pool and more people mean \more problems. A doubling of the American population would result in a very different America.  The land would become one giant food processing system, cities merged together, regulations would greatly increase, and wildlife habitats would be reduced to a series of parks and preserves. 

I.      Back before we skipped pages – whatever happened to order and chaos in architecture?

A.        You’re the one who raised the issue, but it’s all pretty much the same thing.  It’s    finding that zone where neither more order nor more chaos improves things.  In architectural practice we’re usually lucky if we can find a solution  reasonably close to the zone and depending on the circumstances the zone may be anywhere   between these polar extremes.

I.          How do you form these thoughts?  Do you feel them intuitively or have you thought them through analytically?

A.        It’s pretty much a combination of both, but the passion comes from deep within and I sense that my insight comes from a pretty good place  – it’s a broad view from beyond the foibles of the human menagerie…insightful probably, but a fit for today’s reality probably not.