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Posts Tagged ‘Civics’

Steel Factories into Art Factories: Limitless Potential?

Photo Courtesy Arch Daily Link to Project: http://www.artsquest.org/about/about.asp

Elbphilharmonie: three concert halls, a hotel, apartments, and a public square elevated 37 metres above the river.

It seems, at least as far back as the construction Mass MoCa in North Adams, Mass, or famously with the Tate Modern in London, there’s been a formula for turning old industrial buildings, whenever possible, into lofts or art spaces (or both or into the thing of art itself, as in the Rhur region). Economic globalization and its ballyhooed homogenizing, is rather creating strong incentives for preservation of unique places as comparatively advantageous, and the steel factories to art factories phenomenon should be seen as part of that dynamic. Pittsburgh has made this industrial to arts economic development strategy a centerpiece of its contemporary claim to fame. And I’m a fan of the project renderings shown above, and generally support the concepts behind creating the ArtsQuest campus on the former Bethlehem Steel Factory lands (although the “creativity commons” rendering gives me pause about the whole venture with its unintended parodying of a food court.)  By comparison to my old stomping grounds, scores of equally impressive 19th century industrial buildings in the Naugatuck Valley, CT met their fates prematurely due to neglect and wrecking balls. They were torn down before these kinds of adaptive reuses became popularized. In fact, many continue to be torn down. Meanwhile, it seems nearly every rust belt city or defunct industrial neighborhood from  NYC’s meatpacking district to Vancouver’s Yaletown or Portland’s Pearl District, have found new uses for their old warehouse areas. Cities as diverse as Minneapolis, RichmondCleveland,  Hamburg, Manchester NH and Manchester, UK are all pursuing similar residential/arts development strategies in the adaptive reuse of their former industrial buildings. The descriptive animus of this phenomenon I would loosely describe as place-making for the creative class. It has become observably cliche(check out this beautiful example in Brooklyn). They always seem astonishingly successful, and indeed for the most part the strategy of arts-led economic development, coupled with historic preservation place-making, has proven itself in remaking beautiful, vibrant places that have challenged people’s perceptions of urban living. They are showcases of winning efforts in many American cities to staunch the tidal exodus to the suburbs. At their best, these adapted areas reminded people of the enjoyment, variety, and interest of urban spaces. Forgotten, however, are all the smaller places that either pursued the same strategies and found them inadequate, or those that never mustered the means or the political will to pursue them in the first place. An artist-led strategy for economic development has been honed with its own pat phrases and truisms for a couple decades now, with analogies to artists being the pioneer species of burnt over urban wastelands, etc, and with these, mythic, cure-all characteristics have barnacled upon the more modest proposals that underwrite the strategy.

Let me take a moment to say when I refer to the cities pursuing these strategies, or simply use “they”, I am generalizing about the nebulous confluence of real estate developers, government policy makers (who might adopt tax breaks or relax building codes for adaptive reuse), and the historic preservation organizations, art councils, and economic development departments who advocated for these arts-led revitalization of older neighborhoods.

Who or what begins the virtuous cycle of building recycling is not what I’m questioning. Unknown is how universally applicable the strategy of introducing artists to brownfields or other blighted areas is, and if there is a competitive limit to how many places can develop the same artist economic driver “niche” for their economically depressed neighborhoods, or as supplement to lost manufacturing work. Also, unknown to me is how the west coast obsession with the ‘authentic’ just makes this good real estate development.

I think the preponderance of successful art clusters are not beholden to the discretionary spending of their regions. The cities and places with formally creative arts sectors and access to worldwide markets, are places like: London, Paris, Milan, Chicago, Los Angeles, NYC, where the arts communities meet and merge with designers and big industries from furniture to advertising and media. Towns like Pittsburgh, Montreal, or Austin are, if I’m not mistaken, able to sustain their own creative, arts rooted clusters by a mixture of local market capture, linkages to larger industries (education, software, furniture design, etc.) and modest, albeit growing, appeal to tourists and regions beyond. These places and their arts led strategies must be distinguished from, let’s say, a West Hampton or Westport artist community that relies upon the patronage of wealthy residents, or a college town like Madison or Grinnell, IA that has an interested, educated class that is unusually supportive and attracts similar interest as part of a college town arts circuit.  For instance, the arts community of the Berkshires is really a suburbanized section of Boston’s education/arts market. But for other towns/cities, I think the artist/creative sector (that I define more narrowly than, let’s say, Richard Florida’s creative class) has a ceiling. It’s not just any place that can adopt certain credos, put a for-sale sign on its dingiest industrial neighborhood, and sit back and wait for the famed artistic pollinator, moneybees to colonize. Expectations must be curbed, and greater recognition given to one of the main draws for artist communities: the presence of other artists in the region.

Real Estate Developers Know How-To Sum Things Up Neatly Sometimes

The ability of the internet to market products and services at low cost from nearly everywhere still has not changed the fundamentals of urban agglomerations–the presence of graphic, silkscreen, T-shirt companies scattered nationwide notwithstanding. Usually, in those cases where adaptive reuse of industrial areas is planned for new arts sectors, there are added catalysts like youthful demographics, an inherited legacy as a capitol of a culturally distinct region, or an educational institution (think RISD in Providence). But even with those factors, things can peter out far from the full city transformation to robust economic growth. There needs to be kindling to catch the creative sparks of an artists community–feathering a cheap, grungy, plenty caffeinated, industrial-themed nest for the creative types to roost in is not enough. Planners need to start thinking one step ahead, to creating linkages with local educational and financing institutions and to their other local industries, to see how artists and designers might work together with local industries to improve and enhance their  global competitiveness. I believe this is done more effectively in other nations, whether its the way in which Italian regional governments market traditional, artisanal products into international brands and products, or how South Korean corporations/government are adamant in sponsoring excellence in broad categories beyond the technological, understanding how creativity in different fields form positive feedback loops. For instance, in much the same way Silicon Valley computing power and human capital can help the affect the animation businesses of Hollywood, or the publishing and television industries in NYC benefit from the presence of so many local actors and models, so can the smallest American communities be able to build places that make obvious its talented, creative people’s usefulness to other businesses, even if done on more modest scales of arts fairs and local restaurants. Adaptive reuse of lost industrial buildings and places is important, not because artists and designers are going to create the quantity of middle-income jobs manufacturing has lost, but because they often involve the concerted planning efforts of many different stakeholders in order to find complementarity between disparate industries and demographics of a city or region. In essence, they can make a splash.

"The Shirt Factory is a community of over 35 artists who thrive and collaborate in an environment devoted to the arts."

Indeed, I do not think the successful adaptive reuses in economically depressed regions, combined with this arts-led strategy, has ever been about the arts or historic preservation, but something deeper and more to do with high school civics class (those of us who had it). I think its productivity is sourced in bringing together people from diffuse disciplines and backgrounds to concentrate on the creation of new spaces. In this creative enterprise, they imagine their city as a productive locus to enact partnership possibilities. Opportunities are invented.

The use of the historic industrial buildings is key on two levels. Immediately, the efforts are symbolically part and parcel of the city and as keeping in continuity with local heritage, and start to change what might have been a longstanding negative narrative. Even so, there is still a real risk of backlash against the effort as either a gentrifying front, or as a foreign intruding presence meant to irritate or annoy, but ultimately impossible for their particular place (low self-esteem is common to cities plagued with brownfields.) Secondly, the results are tangible and generate positive momentum, buzz, and begin a trend that can cause further investments from previously hesitant or doubtful residents.

Using previously long disused buildings is difficult to object to (although sometimes done) and celebrating their appearance also works to soften gentrifying criticism, and often puts the new business or new residents deep in the heart of older neighborhoods where they cannot fail to be seen and where they will immediately start depending upon, and supporting, local services. They will believe themselves closely identified to the city, and in turn the city will eventually embrace them. This is to be contrasted with the way many light industry business parks were erected on the edges of cities, close to suburbs, as tax and subsidy havens that were devoid of any other compelling reasons to exist other than to retain the business nominally within city limits.

Mattress Factory Pittsburgh

Once located near the edge of town for the sake of tax breaks, those subsidies had to be constantly maintained or enriched. Once located on the edge, the impulse to just cross the line out of town or state to even cheaper conditions proved too strong, the reasons for physically clustering in the center exposed as no longer relevant, and the gravitational force of the city center irreversibly compromised and weakened. Therefore, money not spent on keeping the local workforce more educated and superior in order to retain manufacturing advantages, was, in the final analysis, wasted.

In contrast and superficial as it might seem, creative or so-called ‘human capital’ intensive operations, like those of artists or designers, are seen as irresistibly drawn to the unique attractions of an urban agglomeration and not reliant upon the erection of special tax haven business parks or the ‘right amount’ of government financing. Instead, cultural ‘things’ like music venues, coffee bars, museums, parks, other similarly aged or like-minded people, and even squishier terms like tolerance and heterogeneity, could be given as reasons for competitive advantage. This is a list that starts to sound suspiciously equivalent to a good tourist guidebook (of course artists also need art dealers, clients, and fellow artists in order to support themselves, although the links between popular tourist destinations and the arts is obvious), but the attractiveness of such a theoretical approach to many desperate communities is apparent. It is also a list with a lower threshold to meet than the hard work of institution building once large company sponsors and patrons had left. That’s the danger in the current economic development storyline of attracting creative class people and its strategies–it can build hope on flimsy premises and scattershot precious resources, while ignoring doing the heavy lifting of connecting employers to educators, enabling networking, and expanding the public realm and its concordant services so to make the place itself indispensable to many operations. Quality of life issues are important, connections between people is more important.

Anyways, is this just the nature of comparing manufacturing versus creative sectors, or is the location and building types the key difference? In the past, manufacturing sectors in America were also considered ‘human intensive’, especially as was the case with the famed Yankee ingenuity of the Northeast in celebrated economic powerhouses like Bridgeport, CT. And we can observe in East Asia that manufacturing, especially advanced manufacturing, is not resource based but still very ‘human capital‘ intensive and still cluster at points where skills and know-how can layer and build. So, indeed, I think there is a portion to this that is straightforward bricks and mortars geography, where centrally-located historic buildings are being adaptively reused demonstrate city vitality and can create a self-fullfilling perception that the city is inventive and renewing itself, and when done so in localities near to their legacy infrastructure investments it can reassert the city’s regional centrality and optimize the whole system. One look at the historical tenacity with which the financial sector has clung to Lower Manhattan’s outmoded skyscrapers in-close to the Stock Exchange (after 9/11 being converted when feasible to residential buildings), and then to Midtown and NYC metropolitan area more generally, will support the view that labor markets exhibit a certain stickiness to one another and, importantly, to a geographic place. Corporations might list HQ in the Caribbean, but the executives and work is still done on the Gold Coasts of Long Island Sound and Lake Michigan. On any scale, location counts.

Moderna Museet, Malmo, Sweeden. Completed 2009, old electric plant.

The idea of artists as ‘pioneer species’ or ‘pump-primers’ who spearhead new imaginative undertakings and initiatives in the most blighted and oldest city areas, thus pouring revitalizing wine into old depreciating vessels, then whose efforts will in time attract wealthier suburban consumers to return like cultural vultures to downtown areas to shop and dine once more, which in order leads to more lucrative operations like developing real estate, and then through an increasingly vague and muddy process results in economic rebound for the whole of the city. Oddly enough, even when I put it in this mangled mishmash of metaphors and give misleading emphasis, I do not believe the approach is without merit; when we understand it as a method for communities to work together imaginatively on a new city-building project. Non-profit arts institutions working with government leaders and private developers to fund the rehabilitation of old structures involves organizing a very diverse and broad group of actors. Yet, the bringing of arts and artists to a town must be remembered not as an end unto itself in most cases, but as purely a cheap means for places that are resource poor to do something productive together. This confusion, however, of artists as economic development ends rather than means, can lead to the foolish funding of large performing arts spaces and the like often in small cash strapped places without any aforementioned criteria for successful arts clusters, which in the end is likely to have as much effect on the local economy as a new sports or ballpark.  Equally damned but perhaps far more heroic, is the quixotic pursuit of brave souls in a place like Butte, MT to make themselves the bohemian capital of the Old West, one funky bistro at a time. Artists, or their nerdy computer programmer cousins, who in the past almost legendarily have been recruited to live and work in ratty warehouse locations on the promise of open floor plates, lots of sunlight, and perhaps some dive bar, might have been a cicada-like boon once seen in a blue moon. Their future decision-making should not be over-thought or over-sought in economic development plans–their caprices are subject to sudden, unpredictable change from industrial buildings (as pointed out in the end of this interview).

There is also certainly an element of the trendy involved in the rediscovery of the city as a desirable place to live and that has had at least as much to do with dropping crime statistics as a new appreciation of factory aesthetics. Fostering complementarity and cooperation between creative professionals and the economy writ-large, rooted in well-designed places with strong continuity and respect for places’ formative heritage, should remain uppermost in the clear minds of policy makers. Building the same cooperation around urban agriculture, or a new credit union, or building apprenticeships between schools and artisan workshops might in many instances be more valuable than a big orange box.

That said, for many mid to small cities without bustling, commodified culture scenes, their factories are closed, their mines are closed, their timber mills are closed, but their imaginations should not be.

(this video, to me, is a reminder of the fleeting nature of things. and i’m not just talking about the decaying industry buildings.) Also, a plug. Please save Remington Arms Factory: http://www.archdaily.com/57093/help-save-remington-arms-factory/

Now, belatedly after all this opining and pontificating, I will read Alex Cuthbert’s “The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design” Anyone else already read it? Always a good thing to read about how planning history is a “moribund subject” and how planning is a ‘mongrel discipline, ritually bred from elementary particles derived from social science, economics, architecture, urban geography, law, engineering, etc.’ whose only ‘claim to be a profession is only by virtue of its legitimation by the state’.

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SOS USPS: Post Office Buildings Going for Sale

Eugene Post Office for SaleEugene Post Office for Sale

Photo Taken 3/18/2010 Built in 1938

When the Federal government determines buildings are no longer useful, they put them up for auction through the GSA. Other Federal agencies, nonprofits and educational uses are supposed to get first dibs, but if nobody wants it, the GSA does have a whole department to support its “good neighbor” policy by facilitating local planning efforts to  reuse federal buildings. Whether or not they’re first consulted in disposing of Federal buildings, or if they wait to act only when the local community or citizens approach them, is something I will have to investigate further. As I wrote in a previous post, I would love to see the thousands of soon-to-be-vacant post offices turned into new public facilities rather than just all be turned into restaurants, sit empty, or fall to wrecking balls. In the case of the Eugene Post Office (seen here,) a property in seemingly exquisite condition and on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as in a neighborhood of older buildings put to new commercial uses, I think the worst case scenario is off the table. However, I doubt this will be the fortune of all the closing post facilities.

Now, the GSA website has up a list of success stories, by state, of successful property donations. Oregon’s case example was the provision of an emergency school when the one in the town of Sheridan burnt down. I found this a bit short and pretty lame–maybe the GSA needs a publicist, or maybe despite their desire to find local partners to take these buildings, most federal buildings/infrastructure just end up in the marketplace.  It leaves me to wonder if there is going to be a thoughtful process of divesting the U.S. Post Office of its infrastructure, or if in the end it will be completely ad hoc. In this case, I think opportunities are going to be missed because of the lack of any federal leadership. Localities–not all but many–will most likely scrap to keep their particular offices open for as long as possible, and then will be completely apathetic as to the final outcome for the post offices.

Wallis-Annenberg Center...Courtesy ArchDaily

Some of our wealthier places, as here in Beverly Hills, might be able to not only secure funding but recreate the historic building into something noteworthy for the community. However, these will most likely be the exception to the rule. Also, if the thought is that these structures should be put to purposes of economic revitalization in depressed regions, I believe the default option of making new community theaters, performing arts places, and the like is sort of played out, or at least overhyped. Building new cultural and arts institutions makes sense for many medium to large metro-areas that are most likely starved for these sorts of local opportunities, but I think the strategy of just building these edifices in the hopes of creating bohemian clusters is oversold to many places that it isn’t likely to take. Also, much like the arguments made in behalf of public funding for sports stadiums and arenas in the name of economic development, the idea that these spaces will automatically create spillovers for downtowns does not comport with reality. But this is clearly a topic for another post.

Back to the subject of how the GSA is most likely to dispose of hundreds, and thousands, often uniquely designed, federal post office buildings in the near to medium term. There is, of course (as usual), an argument to be made that leaving things up to local markets to decide the fate of these buildings is the finest, truest method for determining the maximum utility these structures will have for society. I’m divided in my opinion because while I would prefer localities to take the lead (they will best know optimum use and needs) many places lack the sort of informed citizen engagement necessary. In addition, I believe these post offices are going to come up onto the market without much far warning, and as a surprise to local historic preservation or booster groups. Furthermore, thinking from a good government perspective, I would question whether other agencies have thought creatively about how they could take advantage of these thousands of retailing centers strategically located nationwide. It’s understandably not a priority at this time, and expansion has costs. I think it would be desirable for the GSA to analyze each property its disposing, and then shop the building, recommending uses, to targeted agencies and local actors.

For instance, given the GSA’s other mission to provide child care centers, and given the open floor plans post office mail sorting rooms offer, a systematic approach to convert mail rooms to Head Start centers , might be an option. Another might be to help close the digital divide that still persists by the creation of library branches dedicated solely to access to computers, the internet, and multimedia. Other community “3rd place” options would vary greatly by building and location, but include dedicated voting centers (no more closing school early to turn the gym into voting location), fitness centers, clinics, etc. As is the case with the Eugene, Oregon Art Deco structure, Post Offices were designed to grandly express the civic virtues of our republic with Greek temple like entrances. Even with their musty post office odors, I believe the foyers and entrances of these buildings is inspirational and instructional, and we must aspire to fill them with programs and frequent uses that befit their design and influence future generations. These future functions might be private and commercial, but besides the niche bistro I doubt it. I prefer a hold on the sale of former USPS buildings, a thorough and systematic examination of these buildings for continued public use, and if it could be managed, funding for their retrofits and conversion. I photographed the Eugene Post Office and the context of its neighborhood and will soon be posting some thoughts about the structures situation to its environs, and potential future use.

What makes the mundane marvelous?

I really think this kiosk rendering has hit on something. I think this design is simple, beautiful,

functional and uncluttered (but not boring or unadorned). It’s the kind of design for the built environment that I don’t think can be ‘planned’ or forced by any sort of government action, but can only be achieved through the values of average denizens to demand that everyday things in their lives reflect cultural values. I find it pretty rare for the day-to-day commercial structures or infrastructure in America to be built with such an obvious concern for surroundings. In NYC or a national park you might find some concession stands making forced attempts to be inconspicuous, but that isn’t exactly what I like. The post offices of yesteryear I think more closely hit the mark–but their commercial nature is debatable.

When we look at streetscapes in many contemporary East Asian cities we often see pictures of a forest of neon calligraphy, advertising this or that product or shop. In America, we see a similarly motorized version of this, as Robert Venturi so famously has described. These kinds of commercial streetscapes can be functional and still beautiful, since much depends on your subjective understanding of what constitutes a beautiful landscape. However, they contrast strikingly with Victorian commercial buildings, American Main Streets, or Italian gallerias of earlier eras for reasons that go beyond new materials, new construction methods, and new technological demands. There was more going on in these approach of building small shops. There was pride of ownership and individuality evident that is different than the pride of ownership we see in small businesses today, especially and obviously when they’re franchises. There were normative ideas about how to relate your building to others without government direction. Yet, today, too many planners and designers are finding it necessary to rigidly demand less inspired designs to achieve this lost sense of place that attaches to an area or neighborhood that is working individually but in concert with one another to beautify their street. Usually this is in response to blight, sometimes in response to long, windowless walls from modernists.

Binghamton NY

Personally, I prefer when there is a demanding public who, perhaps almost unconsciously pursues an infusion of a particular aesthetic or humanist appeal into mundane structures of everyday life. Many places still seem to engage in this effort to beautify effortlessly, without prodding from local boosters or government, but as a matter of course of doing business. Not surprisingly, I’ve encountered this taking place in self-styled fashion cities like Montreal. In the early 20th century, American cities were full of businessmen who were criticized for their vulgar displays of wealth by building ornate facades of eclectic styles on even the most ordinary buildings. Bakeries and banks alike felt compelled to make architectural statements. Today, some painted numbers inside a window suffices. There are many imaginative people amongst us who can find a charm to these sorts of scenes. However, the beauty in the public realm is really being left to individuals to perceive, and is not consciously made. This salumeria might have once unconsciously arranged meats in the window this way, but that was perhaps centuries ago, and there is definitely an artifice to these arrangements today ( no less lovely for being so ). The comparison to an average American meat market (those that survive I suppose) or the local bodega is obvious. Is it a matter of money, or a cultural difference in taste or panache? There are two trends in our supermarkets today, either to update the interiors to resemble cafes and high end food markets (like Wegmans, some Whole Foods, etc) or downgrade to Super Wal-mart, Costco warehousing. Some would argue the Wal-Mart model is on its way out after peaking, but their profits haven’t shown this–yet.

The more extreme among us (Americans, not British or Dutch) would try to rectify this lacking attention to visual appeal through city adopted design codes. I think there is some validity to discouraging or even outlawing things we know are deadening to the public realm (long, uninterrupted spells of wall facing a sidewalk or public street, , max. setbacks instead of minimum ones, for instance).  But when it reaches the point of dictating what kind of eaves a building should have, we have perhaps gone too far. Admittedly, this is a fuzzy standard, and too much relies on what is ultimately just the considered opinion of experts (subject to constant change) and nothing further. What is it going to take to make everyday, vernacular architecture of things like gas stations, retail outlets, concession stands, etc to become more design conscious? Is it recognizing some hidden economic cost of ugliness, or is it just an awakening of values?  Or am I missing something already around me?

Michigan Central Station–Holey Moley.

How absolutely breathtaking is just seeing this picture? Amazing how it has come to this.

The boys at OCP sound like they’ve got a level eye to knock this Beaux-ty down, but there is some hope: “Among the recent proposals have been to turn the cavernous brick, steel and stone facade into an extreme sports castle; a casino; a hotel and office park; a fish hatchery and aquarium; an amphitheater; or a railway station again, with high-speed trains.Or just clean and secure it, and leave it the way it is as an attraction for tourists.”

A fish hatchery and aquarium? In there? Am I missing something really brilliant? The last two ideas don’t seem half bad to me, but both are a little improbable. High-speed rail to Detroit is probably ten years away in a best case scenario, and while I would definitely make it high on my list of places to visit if I was in the Detroit area, I wouldn’t make a trip to Detroit especially to see it in the same way I might go to the Breakers in Newport, and we know how much those gilded age glories cost to maintain.

Still, there are many options far worse than doing what they did at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly. The Halloween events and tours they do there are just awesome. It’s probably best to just hold on tight until things either consolidate and stabilize, or if it falls apart completely, what difference will it make?

Anyways, the story of the building goes along the same tragic lines as Angkor Wat: “As it is, Michigan Central Station, with its 18-story office tower, has been picked to the bare bones by scavengers, who over the years have made off with a treasure-trove of chandeliers and mahogany and marble ornaments.”

Just to harp on an earlier post, we need to figure out what to do about the future of closed post offices to avoid outcomes like this one.

Enduring Landscapes: Setting Forth Themes for this Blog

February 22, 2010 1 comment

“exegi monumentum aere perennius”

(I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze)

Arch of Constantine-Taken in 2007

— Horace’s Third Ode.

This phrase was adapted to the motto “quid aere perennius?” or, “what is more enduring than brass?”, by my old home city of Waterbury, CT formerly famed as the “Brass City”. It came via the suggestion of a local New England WASP, philanthropist, and all-around 19th century patrician; Frederick Kingsbury (who also happened to be a contemporaneous friend and confidant of famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted).

Ironically, plastics proved themselves to be more enduring than brass, and the city experienced a long decline from its manufacturing pre-eminence. However, I am haunted by the spirit contained within this phrase; both in Horace’s first incantation and later in its prosaic, civic booster formulation. A desire to make places of our present moment  connect with times future and past encapsulates each expression, and with a similar aspiration, I am launching this blog.

The 19th century industrialist and Yale graduate Kingsbury seemed to make his classical allusion forthrightly and without any hint of modesty, whereas Horace’s comparison of his own poetry to the pyramids, impervious to erosion, had a decidedly sarcastic, but reflective quality. Horace, of course, is still read thousands of years later while many of the grandest structures of Waterbury on Grand Ave. are already struggling against erosive forces: shrinking city revenue, corrupt officials, and outright vandalism. My hopes for this blog is merely to continually post on themes posited here: a perceived lack of ambition in the body politic, on-going commentary on regional economic policies and interventions in the physical environments–the tangible loci where our  present moments are already interconnecting with future developments.

Just a couple decades ago, it seemed to me the idea of erecting physical, everlasting monuments seemed itself a dead and forgotten notion–remembered dimly as vulgar, Epicot-like Disney-esque delusions. Architects and futurists talked of a fast-paced, convenient, disposable, and  more utilitarian world. Indeed, many of the more epically conceived, ambitious structures of the modernist era ought to reproduce the grandeur and austerity of ancient Roman buildings in their current ruined state of beauty but eschewed their historical, freshly festooned antecedents in pursuit of sparse, clean lines. Yet, compare the current condition of the Parthenon’s concrete to Louis Kahn’s IIM-A or Moshie Safdie’s Habitat ’67. When modernists erected their monuments, their design and construction did not exude the same grand emphasis on forging a legacy. Perhaps they thought if they mimed the geometric starkness of form of the pyramids the structures would take on their permanence. By the 80s and 90s and 00s distopian world views seemed to command the popular mindset (from Escape from NY to Oyrx and Crake to Matrix).

Parallel to the fall of high modernism, environmentalist and ecological perspectives have evolved to provide an intellectual framework and a rationale of resistance to the turbulent, short-sighted notion that innovation is purely synonymous with cheap, easily replaced materials. Their concept of sustainability is now adopted widely and most have successfully avoided categorization as unrepentant luddites. Sustainability, perhaps the greatest buzzword of the past ten years, is so ubiquitous and often confused mantra that we must conclude the word has nearly lost all relevance and meaning.  Yet, many feel an urgency, rationally constructed in response to threats of industrial pollution and climate change, to renew what it means to tie a building to its physical site, its land and the whole of nature. Should we build our homes of biodegradable straw or, foregoing the need to duplicate effort, carve them out of reusable, long lived stone? The answers to these kinds of specific questions will, presumably in a more environmentally conscious culture, once more reflect the ecological peculiarities of a location greater than the regional price for rebar. The aesthetic choice of a window framing a view of a clump of trees will no longer suffice as proof of an architect’s intention to unite a home in spirit to its surrounding nature; ideally, the energy efficiency of the glass will be given equal or higher consideration. Surely, at the heart of sustainability, is a question not just of the most efficient methods of consumption, but the manner in which we build and structure our cities and societies.

However, to my thinking, forever coupled with the idea of ‘sustaining’ must also be the idea of ‘enduring’. If we take as granted that our societies will reform themselves to achieve grand goals of sustainability, we must remember what bestows the grandeur and what animates its passionate pursuit. The desire to endure is the humanistic fundament for these projects’ appeal and all other concerns are ancillary benefits.

As I interpret the concept, it should neither be like the Italian Futurists that wished to entirely rupture from the past, nor in full lockstep with contemporary new urbanists, such as James Kunstler, who have exhaustively decried the aesthetic decay and alienation caused by an unholy, ahistorical, consumerist crush of sprawl on our landscapes, but also might seek to exhume dead architectural styles. By building in our present with a mind to last, we will create a consciousness of the future in the minds of the young. Hopefully, it will also enlighten respect for our treasured inheritances and by slow accretion transform the places of our daily lives with endearing qualities that will predominate overall.

Still, to my chagrin, even today I can hear glib utterances by young architects that resemble remarkably notions of planned obsolescence. The same individual from a top university, who might otherwise be a very dedicated humanist, or fascinated with executing energy efficient designs, can still be quoted as saying that most buildings are not meant or preferred to last  longer than the fifty years. The response to those who question why, sometimes given with a scolding tone, is to remind the questioner we no longer live in ancient Roman times; as if durable construction in lasting materials is more than merely costly but also the hallmark of a more primitive civilization. For me, this has always sounded analogous to American car manufacturers who scoffed at designing fuel efficient cars because consumers wanted only power.

Of course, it will take more than architects to reverse the circumstances that have given rise to these types of commonplace opinions. I have lived in a neighborhood where, according to Census data, the plurality of building stock dated to the 1910s. I write this today from a building erected in the late 1920s. Indeed, I would argue that in the future buildings must be more enduring than bronze if our physical realm is to have any lasting economic value. While we do not have the same cheap labor, cheap masonry, or armies of skilled Old World artisans that made the enduring structures of the WPA era, neither did the designers of the 50’s and 60’s. Fifty years later, and our society has discovered rather than being able to upgrade and replace as planned, that it must lean only more heavily on the infrastructure and buildings of that era. Our current financial projections also seem to indicate little hope of our nation having the resources to upgrade or replace them in the next fifty years.

In this era where the word unsustainable, whether in environmental or financial context, torrentially pours from the mouths of every commentator and politician prominent in American life, and our post-WWII physical structures are deteriorating quickly, there are innumerable indications that Americans have awoken to this slowly unfolding crisis. On the other hand, there is little indication that any large scale measures will be taken to meet them.  In addition to constantly questioning why this is the case, I will research, analyze, comment, and link to urban and regional planning efforts that are seeking to forestall or reverse this reality, and to highlight efforts that I believe are heroic in their pursuit of building cities and monuments more lasting than brass.

Please visit again soon.