Tag Archives: architecture

Contextual [mis]understanding

Context is everything.



Okay, I concede, maybe not everything.  But our human way of understanding is often based upon context, making it a relevant factor in many realms—whether we are talking about architecture, linguistics, archaeology, or pretty much any other subject matter.  The very definition of context,

the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed

indicates that in order to fully grasp any concept, idea, or even something more tangible, context is essential.

If I were to ask you, “How do you feel about context?” you’d likely respond with, “Context of what?”  See, you’d need some context from which to understand my question about context…

There are many examples by which we can establish the validity of context’s effect on a general level, one of which is the Ebbinghaus Illusion.  This optical illusion serves as a good visual reminder, demonstrating how our eyes and brains interpret and evaluate what we see and experience, based on context.  Perception is based on context.  Whether we like it or not, this is in fact the truth.

The two orange circles are exactly the same size; however, the one on the left seems smaller.

Context + Architecture:

“Place is to architecture as meaning is to language.” -Simon Unwin

I was recently a participant in an impromptu online discussion about the importance (or lack thereof) of context in architecture, spurred on by a Portland Architecture blog post about the North House, a new contemporary multifamily building on an urban infill lot in North Portland.  The length and depth of the ensuing conversation is, I believe, an indicator of many things.  First of all, anything so controversial is likely an important topic deserving of such discussion; second, the discussion demonstrated a rather contentious set of viewpoints and, I might say, an often one-dimensional understanding of architecture and context.  Many of the points raised during the discussion represented extremely valid and thoughtful questions about whether this particular building was designed with sensitivity to its surroundings, but I was disappointed by many insinuations that contextual sensitivity was either black or white—as simple as “same” or “different.”  Questions about this building’s lack of attention and sensitivity to context were often refuted with the sentiment that those posing the questions simply wanted the building to mirror its surrounding structures.  In reality, an examination of urban and architectural context is a matter that must go much further than skin deep, in order to exhibit any significance.

While the discussion provided a very relevant and interesting example from which to think about architectural context, this post is not intended to be about the North House, nor about that discussion.  It is, however, intended to provoke thought on the subject of architecture and context in general terms.

When it comes to architecture, the term context becomes much more complex and dare I say more important than the perceived size of an orange dot.  One of the fundamental struggles in defining architecture—I think both from within the profession and from others’ perception of it—is in determining whether we see architecture as a service profession or an artistic one.  Or both.  And if both, where do we draw the line?  Musn’t there be a balance that lies somewhere between the two extremes: (1) an autonomous architect creating a giant piece of sculpture, and (2) an entirely yielding architect only replicating what already exists?  Instead, how about a collaborating architect creating a building that both exhibits an artful interpretation of architectural form derived from contextual understanding and a building that truly services those who will inhabit it, those who will look at it, and those whose lives will be affected by it in any number of ways?

Granted, this may be a lot to ask for every building to achieve.  But considering that our cities are nothing more than the canvas upon which we inflict our desires—whether those desires be buildings, roads, freeways, bikeways, landscapes, parks, or ourselves—how can we not consider that what goes into creating our cities is deserving of such careful consideration?

Architect and writer, Simon Unwin, states in his book Analysing Architecture,

“Creating places and spaces that enrich the lives of the people who use them is the foundation of architects’ work.  Every building can and should engage in a dialog with the history, beliefs, and needs of a particular place and time.”

Where I believe this sentiment sometimes goes awry is when we fall back on the over-simplified adage of the concept of new vs. old, same vs. different.  It is with this insular way of thinking that we lose sight of the vast array of possibilities that exist within the gray zone.  Somewhere between new and old, or between same and different, is a new that also pays respect to the old or to the existing.  It is not about mirroring, nor about replicating; but it is about considering that vernacular respect can be recognized, and perhaps even alluded to in a new and contemporary way.

To take this a step further, we must contend that context is not simply a matter of architectural form.  It is not only about the pitch of a roof, the choice of materials, or even the size of a building.  While these can often be important pieces of the context puzzle, they are by no means the entire puzzle.  A work of architecture is not just an abstract hunk of materials; it is not sculpture.  Architecture inherently has social and cultural effects that go far beyond what we often consider.  Again, I must reiterate that designers wield power; they are, by the nature of their work, shaping our existence in this world.

To go briefly back to the North House, one of my personal contentions in this discussion related to the social aspects and consequences of placing a new building—one with vastly different design aesthetics than those of its neighbors—within a somewhat disadvantaged area of Portland.  While my assertion was, in part, about the aesthetics of the building, it was much more about what it stands for.  Again, we need to look beyond the skin of the building to issues like its high rental rates (which will limit and signify who can and will live there), to all issues related to how the building design addresses its surroundings—from its relationship with the street to its relationship with the buildings immediately adjacent to it, as well as its relationship within the general context of the city and neighborhood.

Again, it is not my intention to harp on this particular building.  I believe whole-heartedly in progress, change, and embracing the new and different.  But I also believe in addressing issues of architecture and urbanity on a holistic level.  It is my belief that if an architect does not cognizantly accept the fact that his or her work has lasting social implications, he or she is not practicing architecture.  The work becomes nothing more than sculpture.

In the words of Alvar Aalto,

“The very nature of the art of architecture is to serve humanity.  It is a utilitarian art, even in its most spiritual form.”

It is with that sentiment I believe context must be heavily considered.  A building does not stand alone—particularly in an urban environment.  Buildings are but one element of the collage; however, they are a crucial element to establishing social and cultural mores.  Issues such as economic, and therefore even racial, stratification can easily be affected, altered, and changed—for better or worse—by architecture.

While it would be nice to say we can evaluate architecture based strictly on the standards of form, function, and aesthetics, it is very thoughtless to do so.  Architecture is a deeply complex field with deeply complex consequences.  I may have unrealistically high standards, but they are nonetheless standards I believe should always be at play as we evaluate architecture.

And with that, I’ll say: context is everything.  Well, almost.


Blind Beauty

It goes without saying that I liberally rant about the superficial, ego-laden sect of architecture that I am so ethically opposed to.  And chances are, that will not be changing any time soon.  However, I will concede that occasionally I am all but overtaken by the simple beauty of some works—and their ability to evoke emotion in an artful way.  Viewing this short film, The Third & The Seventh, by Alex Roman reminded me of this concept: that while beauty is indeed subjective, we as humans are innately moved by beauty.  For me, this film evoked a sort of melding of disciplines: suddenly the lines between art, architecture, and music became blurred—and I was simply immersed in a collage of forms, textures, light, shadow, sound, and life.

If you can spare twelve minutes of your life, prepare for mind-numbing bliss…

The Third & The Seventh from Alex Roman on Vimeo.

Part of my love-hate relationship with architecture stems from my own personal experiences—being greatly affected, emotionally and viscerally, by my physical surroundings.  I can say without a doubt that I have firsthand knowledge of architecture-induced sensory overload.  I’ve experienced everything from nausea to tears of joy and pain to panic attacks to hairs standing on end to pure and utter bliss—all as a result of my surroundings.  While my reactions may be an example of extreme visceral responses, certainly this phenomenon is a human condition, albeit to varying degrees.  The sensory experience is a crucial aspect of how we encounter architecture, in that all of our senses are utilized in perceiving the essence of a place.  It is not only about vision, or what we see—but about smell, acoustics, tactile qualities,  and how the volumetric properties of a space make us feel.

The validity of this multi-sensory experience was brought to the forefront of my mind after reading this article about blind architects.  What?  Blind architects?  How is that possible? The two architects profiled in this article had been practicing architecture prior to losing their sight, so while they had foundations from which to stand on, the fact that they could continue working is testament to the legitimacy and importance of invoking the use of the other senses while designing.  Perhaps (and likely) the loss of sight forced these architects to truly hone and become more aware of their other senses, as well as how a building evokes emotion based on senses other than vision.

Beauty is not easily defined, as it is very subjective, and with multiple senses in action as we perceive, different people are bound to have different reactions.  But there is no denying that we as humans seek beauty—in landscapes, in music, in art, in architecture.  Beauty alone does not make good architecture, but beauty is not irrelevant.

And after all of the sensory overload I have personally encountered, I will never restrict my perception of beauty to that which my eyes can see.

Design is Design is Design. Period.

In my every day interactions, I receive a lot of questions from people outside the design industry, confirming my belief that design is rather misunderstood by the public at large.  I believe there are numerous reasons for the prevalence of some common misconceptions, and in an attempt to explain a few of them I will likely only scratch the surface.

Though I am only formally educated in one design discipline—interior design—I believe there is much crossover between disciplines as far as design process, thinking, and theories go.  Each discipline—whether it is graphics, web, industrial, interiors, architecture, fashion, etc.—has its own inherent intricacies and unique properties but conceptually speaking, design is design is design.

Recently I was asked, “What kind of design?” in response to my statement that I write about design.  As I responded with, “All things design, in relation to society and culture,” I was met again with the same question: “But what kind of design?”  I then found myself approaching an intense monologue, explaining that our entire world is designed: the chair I’m sitting on, this glass, this napkin, this space we’re in.

Design is everywhere and everything.  This concept is lost on most, though I personally take every opportunity I have to share my thoughts on the subject.

Another recent question I received, “Why are you writing about architecture when you studied interior design?” again broaches the same subject, but I have to address this topic more specifically.  Too often when I speak the words, interior design, I literally cringe at the responses I receive: “Oh fun!” or “I always wanted to do that!” or “I need your help!”  Basically, it is assumed that an interior designer just makes things pretty.

Thanks to cable television and the invasive species of one version or another of Decorators-R-Us, many people think interior design is all about sewing pillows and curtains and—I don’t know—maybe choosing a new matching set of toilet paper holders and toothbrush cups for Sally’s new bathroom in her McMansion.  Alas, it is not.  Interior design is about making spaces where people will live, work, shop, play, and exist.  It is, essentially, the architecture of a building’s interior.

[It is indeed a problem that anyone who chooses to call himself or herself an interior designer can do so.  Some states have legislation regarding this issue, but my home state is still lacking.]

I must break the news: an interior design education at an accredited university doesn’t come with sewing lessons.  Technically speaking, it comes with much more “fun” stuff—like structural and mechanical systems, construction documents, and nitty-gritty detail work that has a tendency to make one (read: me) want to poke her eyes out and run for the hills.

In part, it is these misconceptions that led to my frustration with the industry.  Misconceptions don’t appear out of nowhere; there must be a bit of truth to them, or how would they exist?

On the other hand, it is mostly the idea that design is everywhere and everything that makes me both love and hate it at the same time.  The fact that everything we touch, live with, and interact with on a daily basis is the result of some form of design leads me to the premise that design is, in part, about power.  A clever designer can mold a person’s behavior, shape society, shape life.  It is, at once, scary and exciting.  As with any power, abuse is far more than a possibility; and is often more likely a probability.  Throw ego into the mix and what do you have?  Often, a disaster.

As a result of my discontent with much of the design-world status quo, I began a quest to discover the other side of design.  And I did in fact come across some people and projects that turn the “design = power” scenario upside down—making it a useful, rather than abused, thing.

Project M

During a visit to Hale County, Alabama to study Rural Studio, I learned of Project M—a program inspired by Rural Studio and its co-founder, Samuel Mockbee.  Project M is essentially the graphic design counterpart to architecture’s Rural Studio.  It is a program designed to inspire young graphic designers and other creatives to utilize their skills in a way that positively impacts society.  Project M’s simple motto is: “We just want to change the world.”  They operate under the manifesto that “ability equals responsibility.”

That, I can get behind.

During the summer of 2007, Project M participants took their work to Hale County, where they searched for a project that would best utilize their services. They discovered one-quarter of Hale County’s residents did not have access to clean drinking water, and determined this was an important issue they could help resolve. They created a program called Buy A Meter, which connected residents who were drinking from contaminated shallow wells to the municipal water system, for $425 per household. Working collaboratively, charrette-style, Project M participants designed a series of newsprint advertisements to solicit donations that would give families access to clean water. In addition to Buy A Meter, Project M became a permanent resident in Hale County through its Design Lab—a studio and workspace for Project M participants and visiting designers to stay and work in Hale County.

PieLab and (blank)Lab

As direct descendents of Project M, PieLab and (blank)Lab are prime examples that demonstrate innovation of ideas, and turning ideas into actions.  PieLab—in Greensboro, Alabama—is part pie shop, part community resource and design center.  With such a simple, yet beautiful concept: PIE + CONVERSATION = IDEAS and IDEAS + DESIGN = POSITIVE CHANGE, I can’t help but marvel at its innovation blanketed in simplicity.

(blank)Lab, working under another simple equation: MOBILITY + DESIGN = POSSIBILITY, is a mobile studio, traveling the country to unite communities and designers.  As the name would indicate, it seems to work under the guise of not specifically defining itself, leaving the process open to what may happen along the way, though the program’s intentions have been stated: “The conversations that will naturally occur when disparate groups are introduced, possibly for the first time, will be the catalyst for design projects meant to foster positive change.”  It seems, in essence, to be a thinking machine.

Project H

Project H Design (not to be confused with Project M) is a non-profit product design organization aimed at creating “initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health, and Happiness.”  Again, founded on the belief that design can change the world, Project H “connects the power of design to the people who need it most, and the places where it can make a real and lasting difference.”  Project H is run entirely by volunteer designers, and has a special focus on projects that directly enhance and affect education and experiences for youth.

Project types are wide ranging; to name but a few:

  • Learning Landscapes–a playground system that integrates math learning with play;
  • Empowerment through Food–an urban farming and school farmer’s market program designed to teach ecology, health, and business skills within academia;
  • Safe Spaces–a concept development project to create “engaging, comforting, and inspiring therapy solutions” for children in foster care.

It is projects such as these that have the ability to turn my feelings of cynicism to those of optimism.  I can’t agree more with Project M’s motto of ability equaling responsibility.  This is not to say that every designer in the world should work entirely in philanthropic ways, but I do believe it is important for anyone wielding the designer’s power to be cognizant of this power and what it means in a cultural and social sense.  To forget that design—in all its realms—is about humanity, is to ignore the core purpose of design.  To be devoted to design holistically, one must also be devoted to those for whom the designs are created.

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

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.

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.