Photo Essay: Portland Graffiti

As a follow-up to my recent post on graffiti and New York City’s High Line, I thought it appropriate to do a little exploration of the state of graffiti in my own city.  These photographs were shot during a few hours of an overcast, drizzly Sunday in Southeast and Northwest Portland.  Some pieces are more significant than others, in the context of their art.  However, I believe it all to be collectively significant in telling the story–even the visibly painted over.  Let the photos speak:


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009


An unsuccessful design? Not so fast…

I’ve long questioned the idea of successful design, and how we go about determining the definition of successful. Design is a big word—much bigger than its physical stature would imply—so I’ll not make any blanket statements here about whether this question I’m posing applies to all things design.  I’ll just use a specific scenario as an example from which to pose the question.

I spent a year of my life searching for the answer to this question—as I studied the work, the process, and the people of Auburn University’s Rural Studio—for my own thesis project in design school.  I was drawn to this particular program because of its inherent humanitarianism—providing architecturally designed homes and community buildings for impoverished people in rural Alabama—people who, under any typical circumstance, would never have access to an architect.

Rural Studio is a pedagogical anomaly in architecture schools, as its purpose is as much sociological as it is architectural.  Students are required to leave their university homes and live within the small, rural communities where they design and build.  In the process, many societal lines are blurred, including racial ones—as white middle class students work closely with extremely poor African American residents.  Not your typical architect-client relationship, for sure.


Typical home in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009


Typical home in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

I recently attended a Portland screening of “The Rural Studio,” a 2002 documentary about this program.  After having been to Alabama earlier this year on a research mission, I was mostly curious to see this film because of its relatively outdated status.  I realize 2002 was not that long ago, but Rural Studio has only been around since 1993, and when Samuel Mockbee, its co-founder, died in 2001, a change in leadership naturally led to an evolution of the program that wasn’t evident at the time this film was made.  I was curious to see how the program would be portrayed, and interested to view the film with my newly gained ‘more informed’ perspective.

By conventional views, two of the major projects profiled in the film would likely be considered failures, due to their statuses today.  But maybe conventional views don’t always apply?

The design-build process of the Sanders/Dudley house, built for a young woman with six children, was chronicled in the film: Interviews with students and the client were paired with footage of interactions between them, and footage of students physically building the home.  For anyone who believes in the power of doing good, acts of kindness, and the power of design, it is an emotionally heart-wrenching scenario to watch.  I observed others viewing the film, and could see them visibly moved.  I was moved as well.  It was the perfect portrayal of the entire reason I chose to study this program in the first place—because it is about people.  But I had this nagging little morsel of doubt, of defiance, swirling around in my head—because I knew what happened with this house after all was said and done.

As of February 2009, when I was in Alabama, the Sanders/Dudley house remained vacant, even though it was built some eight years prior.  From what I understand, the client—for one reason or another—did not like the house once it was complete, and chose not to move into it.  Her preference instead was the doublewide mobile home on the same property, adjacent to the new house Rural Studio built for her.  [One of the conditions of the Rural Studio “charity” houses is that there are virtually no conditions.  This home was given as a gift, with no expectations.  It was handed over, and the new owner may do with it whatever she pleases.]


Sanders/Dudley Site: Rural Studio house on left; mobile home where the family lives on right. Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

Another project profiled in the film, the Glass Chapel, might also be seen today as somewhat unsuccessful.  While I know of no story with the Glass Chapel as dramatic as the story of the Sanders/Dudley house, the building appears as though maybe it’s unused, with the surrounding vegetation taking over a bit.  Regardless of its status today, my preference with this building is to sing its praises, as I believe it is a beautiful display of architectural ingenuity—of turning trash into something useful.  With a rammed earth structure made from local clay, and a roof composed of 1980s GMC sedan windows salvaged from a scrap yard, this building speaks volumes about what can be created with material resourcefulness.  For that reason, it is probably my favorite Rural Studio building.


Glass Chapel: roof of salvaged car windows | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009


Glass Chapel in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

The film—again—profiled the creation of the Glass Chapel in an emotionally riveting way.  Students were seen playing with local children during the process, and neighbors were frequently on-site, interacting with the students.  The students were working tirelessly, in extremely unforgiving heat.  They were dedicated to the job, and it came across loud and clear that a big part of the reason why they cared about what they were doing was because they cared about the people for whom they were doing it.

Music Man 3

Music Man and his Rural Studio house. Much of the materials were gathered/found on-site. Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

The most important thing I have learned through studying Rural Studio is that—often—our definitions of success and of beauty could stand some reworking.  Nothing taught me more about this than my meeting with Music Man, at his Rural Studio designed and built home.  Music Man is a legendary character in Hale County, Alabama, and rightfully so.  I’ve never felt quite so fortunate to have met anyone, as I do to have met him.  He really made me rethink my whole paradigm.  Following is an excerpt from an essay in my thesis project, about Music Man and this subject of successful design and beauty:

Music Man is truly an enigma.  He defies all logic and typical preconceived ideas about poverty and its people.  Music Man’s love for life simply blows my mind, and causes serious reflection on the things upon which we typically place value.

How do we define successful design?  And what is beautiful?  If a design is serving its purpose—a safe, structurally sound shelter that is beautiful and functional to its user—dare we call it unsuccessful simply because it hasn’t changed or “bettered” its user’s way of living?  Are we really so judgmental, and so predisposed to the idea that sterility equals beauty, that we can’t accept another human being’s way of living?  If Music Man’s house is filled to its gills with items we’d assume are junk, does that mean the design of his house was unsuccessful?

As designers, we are trained to be problem-solvers.  But as societal sheep, we are trained to think, act, live, and breathe conventionally.  We are stifled.  We are caged.  We are often boring and dull.  We work with prescriptions.  We are afraid.  We are weak.  We are out of touch with humanity.  We are touched by objects, by buildings, by light, by form, by shape, by texture.  And yet we forget to be touched by the people for whom we create these objects, buildings, light, form, shape, and texture.

How about we reconsider the notion of successful design, and most certainly the notion of beauty?

Music Man 2

Music Man and Me | Feb 2009

I Heart Grit, Grime, and Graffiti

I’ve always had a fondness for graffiti, and the vibrance it adds to an urban landscape.  One look through the library of photos I’ve taken as a traveler will clearly indicate that urbanity, including the grime and grit that come with it, is attractive to me.  Add that to my propensity for all things controversial, acts of defiance, and artists gone rogue, and it’s no surprise that I am one who loves graffiti.


Rome, Italy | Photo by Audrey Alverson

What some may see as vandalism and defacement of property, I see as valuable additions to the visual landscape.  It’s not even about whether I “like” the actual art.  It’s more about the act—and the fact that a city awash with graffiti is, to me, a city with color.  I mean that both literally and figuratively.  In the figurative sense, it is about activity, life, participation, and a general lack of homogeneity.  It is about artists who are willing to be defiant in order to make a statement.

So when I see colorful, artful graffiti given such disregard as to be painted over with flat gray paint—something akin to what I imagine prison walls to look like—I see the transformation from life to death.  Participation and activity turned into absence.  Vibrance and color that become dull and drab, with an air of corporate cleanliness.


Rome, Italy | Photo by Audrey Alverson

My current interest in this topic was inspired by a recent New York Times blog post about the removal of graffiti along the High Line in New York City—a process that has been both lauded and criticized.  The High Line, in many ways, is an urban-reform success story: a formerly abandoned railroad line converted to a park, offering views of the city from its elevated perch.  But the recent and impending removal of graffiti from most of the High Line’s neighboring buildings has left many feeling that a key element of the site’s history, and part of the city’s grit, has been wiped out—or painted over.

While graffiti has been around since the days of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire in the form of inscriptions and cave paintings, modern graffiti gained prevalence during the twentieth century—much of it expressing political activism.  It is graffiti’s connection with hip-hop culture, however, and their concurrent births in New York City that bind the High Line’s graffiti to its history.  Given that the High Line was abandoned in 1980, at virtually the same time as the birth of hip-hop, the graffiti on-site provides a true visual indication of the time in which it was abandoned.  In essence, it is part of the story of what it once was.

So is it appropriate to essentially “wipe the slate clean,” particularly in a city like New York that is truly America’s most diverse and colorful city?  And a city that is as much about its grit as anything else?

The iheart project, a self-proclaimed “exploration of symbols, a love affair with representation,” painted its signature iheart symbol at the High Line in November 2008—both as an homage to the already present street art, and in protest of its rumored removal.  The process of High Line’s transformation—from graffiti-covered, abandoned railroad to pristine city park—is well chronicled and photographically documented on iheart’s website.

It kind of breaks my heart (no pun intended) to see this transformation.  I find the whole location much more beautiful, and most importantly, interesting, prior to its “cleanup.”  I see it as one thing to give the space validity within the city’s context by making it usable, but to completely alter it to the point that it has no resemblance of its former self?  I don’t get it.

Graffiti is inherently controversial: It is seen by some as art; by others as vandalism.  In all fairness, I would say it is both.  But vandalism or not, the act and the art of graffiti are inevitable elements of a city with any amount of cultural diversity.  And its acceptance—or not—is, to me, an indication of a level of respect—or disrespect—for both diversity and art.

A vibrant urban environment has personality, culture, and diversity—which can come in many forms.  Are we trying to uniformly strip our cities of this life?  Is being pristine better than acknowledging cultural differences within a city?  And a big question: How do we define art and beauty?

One person’s dream is another’s nightmare, and one person’s art is another’s trash, but I happen to be a lover of all things urban—including grit, grime, diversity, culture, and street art.

Sour Grapes

And here she goes again…

Another Portland design event brings another set of thoughts and, likely, questions.  I’d like to start by climbing to the highest rooftop I can find, so I can do my shout from the rooftops rant.  But instead, I’ll settle for this metaphorical rooftop I have here.

This story will begin and end with grapes.  That’s right—grapes.

Last night I attended an open house at Portland’s Leftbank Project, a cool revamp of a 1923 building originally designed by architect A.E. Doyle.  In theory, I’m a supporter of the building and its purpose: to connect and support mission-driven businesses in an inspiring environment, and to do so in an ecologically responsible way.  But based on my recent post about The GreenVille Project—one of Leftbank’s tenants—one could say I’m a bit leery of what this “mission-driven” concept sometimes means.

I was hanging out in the office of dc202 design collective, and became privy to a conversation that really threw me for a loop.  One of dc202’s neighbors (a Leftbank tenant) came by and started grilling a dc202 employee about their sustainability practices.  I guess it’s fine to ask the questions, but here’s where it turned strange:

Apparently, there was a question posed about where the grapes dc202 was feeding its guests came from.  As in, the neighborly tenant thought it necessary to remark on the large size of said grapes and therefore, the fact that they probably weren’t from the local farmer’s market.  No, sorry people, the grapes were from Costco.

Oh, how I hate that I have to repeat myself from a previous post, but:


Again, let’s not get caught up in the details, folks.  Before we start nit-picking about grapes, we’ve got to think about the bigger picture here.  Sorry, but local farmer’s market grapes will do nary a thing to save the world.  Yeah, yeah, I get it that all those little actions add up to a greater whole.  I’m not completely oblivious to this concept.

But for the sake of point-making, how about I call attention to another silly sustainability detail from last night: the PLA “biodegradable” corn cups used to serve wine.  I could go on and on about the fact that the term biodegradable is awfully generous, given the process required for these cups to biodegrade, and the lack of availability of said processes.  I could rant about the fact that most people don’t have access to the required commercial composting system—and that these cups can’t be recycled—so more often than not end up in landfills, or contaminating recycled traditional plastics.  I could go on for hours about the fact that these cups are made from genetically modified corn, and that the epidemic agribusiness of corn growth is extremely harmful to the environment—by using excessive amounts of insecticides and herbicides, and contributing to soil erosion and water pollution.

Yes, I could do all of that.  And for the sake of illustrating my point, I just did.  But the real point I’d like to make here is that if we all can’t get off of our sustainability high-horses and stop this nit-picking about silly details, we’re never going to get anywhere.

News flash: the problem is much bigger and much deeper than grapes or corn cups.

I guess what it comes down to for me is this:

Are grapes and corn cups really worth fighting over?

I’m beginning to feel that sustainability—a word I’m starting to despise—has just become another way for people to express their superiority, their virtuosity, their perceived willingness to do the right thing. It’s another topic to fight about, and most of the arguments are truly futile.

I waver between feeling that there is hope for change, and feeling that we should all just do the best we can, and most importantly—live and let live. Because really, if we aren’t willing to seriously tackle the root of this problem, which in my opinion is over-population, chances of any major turn-around in the state of our environment are slim to none.

So let’s just stop with the sour grapes, please.

Caught Up in Pretty

I’m going to do something a little unconventional here.  I’m going to be conventional, for a moment.  At least that’s what it feels like to me, but chances are, as the words pour forth, my unconventionality will surface.

I attended Portland’s AIA Design Awards Gala last night, planning to be bored to tears, and also planning to be unimpressed.  But actually, I was neither bored nor completely unimpressed.  Shocking, I know.

I was reminded why Portland is on the radar as a successfully designed city, and one that has a long history of sensible thinking about what we can and should do to the earth beneath us.  From the 30+-year-old Urban Growth Boundary to public transportation to a general awareness and respect for environment, Portland is certainly among the “cities of the future,” as Will Bruder, one of the jurors, put it.  But oh, don’t get me wrong—we are not perfect.  And given the content of my last post about climate change, my ultimate belief is that even in Portland, we are not doing enough (or rather, too much?).

I did feel a bit of Portland pride, though, as the jurors remarked on the quality of design in the city, and their impressions of what is happening in Portland.  Even with all my misgivings about the built environment and how we go about building more, I have to say that for a moment, I got caught up in the pretty of it all. It was like I was thrust into a time machine, and transported back to a time when I was ignorantly, naively enamored with design.

I snapped out of it eventually, but I’ll admit, begrudgingly, that I liked it—at least a little bit.

Two firms seemed to sweep the awards: Works Partnership Architecture and PATH Architecture.  In those fleeting moments when I can be considered a fan of architecture, I’d say I’m a fan of both firms’ work.  It all has a quality and a twist on regionalism that intrigues me.  The work is not “typical” but it’s also not out of touch with reality.

During my brief stint of being caught up in the pretty of it all, one of PATH’s projects caught my eye.  And sitting in the audience, watching the winners accept their awards, I realized that earlier in the evening I had been chatting with (who I now think was) Corey Martin of PATH, as we were each trying to find the proper entrance to the Gala.  Only I didn’t know at the time who he was.  And looking back, it was a proper indication of my indifference to the “who’s who” that I didn’t bother to ask, even though he asked me.

For some reason, PATH seems to be crossing my path a lot lately.  After researching the work of Saul Zaik for a project I’d been doing related to an award Zaik was receiving last night, and speaking with Zaik personally, I came to understand that Zaik and Martin have a mutual respect for one another’s work—even though they are separated in age by several decades.  In both cases, I think the mutual respect stems from each architect’s attention to, and respect for, a regional vernacular.  So with the Zaik-Martin connection in mind, and my later realization that I had been speaking with Martin, and after absorbing a little of his work at the awards ceremony, I decided to do a little more research.

And now I’m truly intrigued.

I read this interview on Portland Modern and now I get it.  Martin is a thinker, and it goes without saying that I like thinkers.  His architectural work is aesthetically beautiful, but there has to be something more than that to draw me in.  He talks about human experience in the spaces he makes, on a very intellectual and visceral level.  He also has a relationship with sculpture—a characteristic that seems to be evident in much of the work I’m drawn to.  But what really got me was this digital sketchbook of his.  I find his drawings beautiful, evocative, and I like their abstract relation to architecture.

All in all, there is something about his thought process and design intentions that make me want to know more.  So now I’ll have to work on finding out if it was actually him I spoke with.  And maybe there will be more to come on Corey Martin; time will tell.

But for now I will acknowledge that it is entirely possible that I have, and will continue to, contradict myself.  That is one of the hazards and beauties of being a thinker.  It’s not necessarily about having answers; it’s more about having questions.

Climate Change: It’s About Humans, After All

This post is part of Blog Action Day ’09, a worldwide event with thousands of bloggers writing about one topic–climate change–today.

As much as I am a lover of concepts and theories, sometimes it is important to put human faces to these abstract concepts we concern ourselves with.  Climate change is one of those issues; it is often faceless, nameless, not human.

While climate change is not directly an issue I choose to rant about with any regular or particular fervor, poverty is.  And the two are more directly related than is often realized.  As with many issues faced by world citizens, the poor bear the worst brunt, and they often are not the most significant causers.  If I can do nothing more than be a voice for the poor, who are often voiceless, I will at least feel that I’ve done something.  The truth is that my regular life, my regular education, my regular privilege—all give me the opportunity to speak.  The poor don’t usually have this opportunity, because without privilege, education, and the confidence born from them, no one wants to listen.

I prefer to take the stance that climate change is a humanitarian issue, not just an environmental one.  Maybe it seems a bit moronic, and blatantly apparent to state that humans and environment must cohabitate peacefully, but I still believe it needs to be said.  I’m constantly drowning in drivel and droning about greenhouse gases, global warming, peak oil, the evil of cars, conserving water, sustainable-this, sustainable-that, eco-this, eco-that, green-this, green-that—but rarely, if ever do I hear anyone talk about what any of this means, and who it’s really going to affect.

The truth is, those who will suffer most from the effects of climate change are—you guessed it—the poor.  And the even sadder truth is that they are, in most cases, the smallest contributors to the problem.

I could say that design is just a small piece of the climate change puzzle.  But I like to think big.  Holistically.  Outside the box.  And so I will say that design is the entire puzzle.  Pretty much everything we look at, touch, inhabit, drive, ride, wear, write on, write with, type on, research with, eat from, drink from—is designed. Our lifestyles have been designed.  Designers shape the world by creating the things we live with.

It’s a powerful position to be in—and as with any power—it can be abused.

This topic is so vast that my monologue could become a book if I’m not careful, so now I’ll have to reel it in a bit.  In order to make this effective, I have to simplify to ideas, not details.

It is my opinion that most of the current tactics we employ for being ecologically conscious are simply futile and not effective.  I don’t think it’s enough to merely utilize different products and materials that allow us to continue going on about our lives in a “business as usual” kind of way.  I believe that if we truly want to have an impact on climate change, we must change our behavior.  We must redesign the way we live.  The great thing is that it’s possible.  If we were able to design our lives as they are now, why can’t we redesign them to effectively survive our current and future environmental conditions?  We are humans, after all.  We are adaptable.

On the other hand, the unfortunate part about this is that I believe it requires doing less, not more.  We can’t continue to be consumers of objects and things the way we currently are.  We can’t continue to build and make and build and make at the rate we currently are.  What this really means is that we can’t design the way we currently are.

It is far more sustainable to reuse and adapt what we already have—buildings and objects—than to create new ones, no matter how the new ones are made.

So what does this mean for designers?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  But I believe that if the focus of our intentions changes, the work that is spawned will follow suit.  If you keep in mind the faces of the innocent human beings your work will affect, chances are you will come up with a solution that may hurt them less.  If you recognize that every action you take has a resulting reaction—even though it may be one you can’t see—chances are you’ll make different choices.  If you consider that by designing or using something wasteful, someone across the globe may lose his access to food, water, and shelter—maybe you’ll reconsider.

Really, it’s a simple set of solutions, but it’s a complicated world we live in.  And while the optimist in me believes all this is possible, the cynic in me believes it is not probable.  We are, in fact, adaptable but we are also a species like all others—which means “survival of the fittest” is at play.  In this case, I’m afraid those who are fittest are those who have the most money.

Think back to Hurricane Katrina.  Who suffered the most?  Those who were most poor. Those who didn’t have the means to escape in time, simply didn’t.

There is an entire population of people, spread far and wide across the globe, who don’t have the tools, technology, or money to deal with the ramifications of our gluttonous lifestyles.  So if we won’t make drastic changes and sacrifices for the sake of the Earth, how about for the sake of the innocent people who will die if we don’t?

A “Hippocratic Oath” for Designers?

Sometimes, not much needs to be said.

Mainly, I just want to pass along another person’s genius.  Emily Pilloton launched Project H Design–an organization that works on industrial design solutions to address social and humanitarian concerns–last year, at the age of 26.  “The Designer’s Handshake” is a sort of “Hippocratic Oath” for designers that is part of her new book, Design Revolution.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, so here it is, in her words:

The Designer’s Handshake

(excerpt from Design Revolution by Emily Pilloton)

I, as an individual engaged within a greater design community, promise to try, to the best of my ability, to commit and adhere to the following principles within my work and life as a designer:

To go beyond doing no harm:

I will engage only in design activities that improve life, both environmental and human. I will recognize that design that does not improve life is a form of apathy and that “doing no harm” is not enough. I will engage only in design processes that are respectful, generative, catalytic, and productive.

To listen, learn, and understand:

I recognize that every client, partner, or stranger is someone to learn from. I will listen before assuming. I will seek to understand the historical, geographical, social, cultural, and economic context and precedents before beginning the design process.

To measure, share, and teach:

I will measure results quantitatively and qualitatively. I will, as appropriate, make my best practices, successes, tools, and failures available to colleagues for community-based learning.

To empower, heal, and catalyze:

I will use design as a tool to empower people, to make life better, to bring health and improve life, and to enable users to help themselves. I will seek out systemic solutions over quick fixes.

To be optimistic but critical:

I will employ perpetual optimism as a design and business strategy but will apply the same critical evaluation toward social and humanitarian design work that I would any other product. Just because it’s “for the greater good” doesn’t make it good design.

To think big and have no fear:

I will take calculated risks and not be afraid to use design as a tool for change. I will explore new models for how design can have the greatest impact for the greatest number.

To serve the under-served:

I will look first to demographics underserved by design and propose viable solutions for such groups as the homeless, the sick, the ailing, the young and old, the handicapped, poor, and incapacitated.

To not reinvent the wheel:

When something works well, I will not assume I can or should start from scratch. I will use what it is available to me and look to local resources, skill sets, and materials.

To not do what I don’t know:

I will acknowledge the limits of my expertise and will not hesitate to say “no” or to pass projects to another designer who may do a better job.

To always put the user first:

I will always place need over consumption and the human being over the market. I will consider human value, experience, and consequence above all else.

To do good business with good people:

I will be honorable in business and partnerships. I will build distribution into my design, and employ businesses that maximize social impact. I will align myself and work with individuals and groups who have the same values as I do.

To own up and repair:

I will take responsibility for any failures or mistakes I may make and take measures to repair and understand my errors.

To be part of a greater whole:

I will remember that I am a part of a system and a community of designers, users, clients, and global citizens. I will recognize that my individual decisions affect this greater group, and that I have a responsibility to contribute productively.

Save the Polar Bears: Build a Shopping Mall

Honesty.  Forthrightness.  Candor.

Just call it like it is.  Is that too much to ask?

I suppose it’s just human nature—a form of self-preservation—to use popular ideas to benefit oneself.  I’m not much of a businessperson or economic genius of any sort, but I do understand that surely this is an important undercurrent in moneymaking business models.  Capitalize on trends—sounds like a smart enough idea.

However, it disturbs me deeply to see ideas that were rooted in benevolence become mutated into marketing ploys, preying upon the emotions of well-intentioned people.

At this stage in the game, it is no longer even worth discussing whether or not architecture should be designed and built in the most ecologically responsible way.  It is pretty much a given at this point.  But where ideas, ideals, and ethics diverge is in the practical application of this theory—i.e. how we execute the plan.

I’m educated as a designer, so I tend to approach most topics as I would a design problem.  Any designer worth their salt will tell you that a good design is hardly possible without a solid driving concept.  The concept is like the backbone, the foundation.  It gets you through the dark and stormy times when you want to go all willy-nilly and get hung up on the details.  Don’t get me wrong; details matter, but concept must come first.  Without a concept that is evident and ever flowing throughout a design, the details really aren’t effective.

So when I read the Vision of The Greenville Project, a new shopping mall developer with Eva Longoria Parker as one of its partners, I think about the sustainability concept and I get a little green, as in feeling a bit greenwashed.  The fact that we have had to coin the term greenwashing to explain the practice of expressing “unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue” indicates to me that the well-intentioned sustainability and green building movements have gone way off track.

My biggest question is this: Can a shopping mall truly be sustainable?

I don’t doubt that one shopping mall can be better or worse than another as far as its environmental impact goes.  But isn’t it a bit of an oxymoron to claim that a project that inherently feeds the consumerism monster is doing a good deed for the environment?

By the sounds of GreenVille’s Vision, one would think they really are going to save the polar bears by building shopping malls:

“It was probably the video of a polar bear drowning from exhaustion because there is not enough ice left to rest on.  Yes, that was enough.  Enough to first devastate us, then enrage us, and ultimately motivate us to want to take a stand.”


There are a few things about GreenVille’s promotional material that I take umbrage with, and this is one of them.  How does building a shopping mall do anything to positively affect the melting ice caps?  If anything, it does just the opposite.

Yes, there are better and worse ways of building.  And yes, GreenVille seems intent on employing certain “green” standards, such as utilizing alternative energy sources, conserving water, and encouraging patrons to use public or other alternative modes of transportation.  I would agree that these steps are better choices than some others GreenVille could make.  But I can’t get behind the concept that building any kind of shopping mall is going to save polar bears from drowning.  Or add any positive ecological impact for that matter.  It could be done in worse ways, but do GreenVille’s choices really merit such virtuous talk?

It’s not that I believe we should all have the same ideals, passions, or ethics.  I don’t even want that; it would make for quite a boring world.  But I do believe in calling it like it is.  If you want to be a shopping mall developer—fine.  Just don’t call it sustainable.  There is nothing about our current consumer behavior that is truly sustainable.  And to insinuate that a shopping mall is going to save the Earth from certain disaster is rather insulting to the intelligence of the public at large.

And maybe I’m being too much of a wordsmith here, but when a company’s tag line combines the words “hip” and “sustainable,” this says to me, “Sustainability is hip.  Let’s profit from it.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Just be honest, please.

The Abundance Conundrum

Has the abundance of work, abundance of money—general abundance—of the last several years stifled creativity and obliterated the notion of experimentation?  Has it become more about production, building, and practicality—because that’s where the money is?  This article about architect Lebbeus Woods made me consider that perhaps this “Great Recession” could be a healthy and productive part of the design cycle.  Productive for the mind, that is.  Not necessarily productive for the built environment—at least immediately.  Freed from the chains of “the man,” minds are better able to wander, to experiment, to express.

Architecture, or rather good architecture, embodies a fine balance between form and function, creativity and practicality, art and space.  A fine balance between possibilities and realities.

Let’s face it: there is no shortage of reality, architecturally or otherwise.  The last thing we need is more reality.  How about a little fantasy?  A little fantastical, imaginative, whacked-out creative expression?  Maybe even a little absurdity?

Much of the debate and discourse among architectural theorists has long been related to the question: What is architecture’s role in society? In Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture, Kate Nesbitt poses four possibilities that, in my humble opinion, are worth a serious ponder: “1) architecture can be indifferent to social concerns and their expression and representation; or 2) architecture can be an affirmative actor supporting the status quo and accepting existing conditions; or 3) architecture can gently guide society in a new direction; or 4) architecture can radically criticize and remake society.”

Given that I don’t care much for societal boxes or rules, I am of course most inclined to agree with option number four.  Anything that radically criticizes and at least attempts to remake society is automatically granted some form of validity in my book.  Change requires change, period.

Piranesi's Carceri Plate VI: The Smoking Fire

Piranesi's Carceri Plate VI: The Smoking Fire

Over the past few centuries, an array of architectural characters has created work that categorically debunked the status quo with designs, drawings, and ideas that boldly expressed distaste for the usual, and contempt for the pragmatic.  The 18th century was, in some ways, a time of architectural revolt, with architect-artists such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and Étienne-Louis Boullée—who all used their work to basically say, “I don’t care what everyone else is doing, and as a matter of fact I don’t like it.  How about we shake things up a bit?  Maybe this is how it should be.”

Ledoux's Inspector's House

Ledoux's Inspector's House

Piranesi built little over the course of his career, but he drew a lot—creating etchings of exaggerated and theatrical architecture—certainly not pragmatic, but emotion- and question-evoking. He wasn’t ignoring history, but he was certainly turning it upside down.  Ledoux and Boullée followed Piranesi by just a couple decades, and each left a body of work that could be considered more visionary than realistic—much of it never intended to be realized in the built form.  To be fair, I should note that Ledoux actually has a large roster of built projects to his credit, but this did not stop him from also designing more theoretical, visionary schemes.  All three—Piranesi, Ledoux, and Boullée—left legacies as architectural visionaries who scoffed at the standards of their times.  They were designers who were not bound by societal constraints.  Their work may not have been built, but it offered radical concepts and ideas to inspire change.  It wasn’t immediately acceptable; it required critical thought.

Boullée's Project for Newton's Cenotaph

Boullée's Project for Newton's Cenotaph

The point is, these visionaries left their marks on the architectural world not by designing what could have or should have been built.  They left their marks by doing quite the opposite.  And if Lebbeus Woods is now left to be the lone ranger—the only one who is not only willing, but also interested in, making work that evokes radical ideas, concepts, forms, and change—I believe we will be left with a barren landscape of horribly mundane architecture, and probably a generation of horribly unfulfilled architects.

Just as change leads to more change, ideas lead to more ideas.  Historically speaking, change and progression have come by way of revolution.  And revolutions typically come with much controversy, as do the revolutionaries who participate in them.  But what would our world be without revolutions, and revolutionaries for that matter?  Those who have made the biggest impact on the world, and left the biggest impressions, were not necessarily well-liked.

So now that the economy has ripped from our greedy little hands the ability to design and build hundreds more condominium towers or extravagant retail outlets, I’m calling for a moratorium on boring.  The way I see it, there are two options:  1) We can take the necessity is the mother of invention route—and design with minimal costs, minimal extravagance, and begin building with scraps and garbage (ala early Rural Studio); or 2) We can say screw it and forget about pragmatism, getting stuff built, pleasing clients (because where are they, anyway?), and being realistic.  Go wild, go nuts, draw crazy things, remake, reinvent!

I think it’s high time for another Piranesi.  Or maybe a generation of Piranesis.