Archive for March, 2008

I’m still moving

March 27, 2008

Well, first they moved my office, then I moved my home, and now they are moving my blog. I have to write this to initiate the process and hopefully 200 old posts will follow.

Thought for Thursday March 27 2008. My beer club sent a half-sized newsletter claiming it was using less paper and is therefore greener. They then sent an email suggesting that future newsletters be pdfs which is even more environmentally friendly.

My response? Is it really more sustainable to rely on computers, which run on non-renewable coal, rather than paper, which is renewable and made from trees?



March 25, 2008

Week before last they moved my office – while I was off doing tours of the Farnsworth House (1946-51, Mies van der Rohe) and the Ford House in Aurora (1947-50, Bruce Goff). The tours considered the vast artistic difference between two mid-century icons built at the exact same time, both with free plans and framed in steel, but one an orthogonal exercise in classical purism of steel, glass, travertine and primavera wood, the other an exuberant disk, a romantic fantasy of coal, glass cullets, rope and cypress that, according to its longtime owner, can actually prevent depression.

In concert with two days of visiting steel houses with glass walls, my new office has two walls of windows and I have been moving at home too so I unpack a box at work and carry it home on the train for re-use. Our winter of discontent has been also a winter of boxes, which makes one realize how little is actually needed for the everyday, since I have many things that have been sitting in boxes in the basement of the new house (new being 1897) since November and for the most part they are not missed.

At the same time, one has to wonder at the audacity of Mies, who initially refused to include closets or dress-height wardrobes in Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s house, the excuse being it was a vacation home but the real reason being architectural purity and glass transparency – the wardrobe that was added diminishes the view of and out of the architecture.

The Greek Temple recast as a white steel and glass box and done with utmost precision. The Ford house is modern Rococo, an exuberant, swirling titter. Both houses grew out of the Fountainhead era, the age of heroic, god-like architecture and both require their inhabitants to adapt – rather than the other way around. Frank Lloyd Wright did that a lot – trimmed and windowed the walls so you couldn’t hang pictures on them and disturb the pictorial perfection of his vision. Le Corbusier allowed paintings on the walls, as he was a painter as well (and a painterly architect).

Wright hated attics and basements because they attracted clutter – but as I move out of and into my boxes I wonder whether clutter isn’t our natural condition and whether art is not, like religion, an unattainable model of perfection and I wonder how people can really live in those perfect spare interiors you see in the Sunday magazines. My own architectural dreams do not have form at their center – I can’t see them in two dimensions, much less three as Wright could – but they are all about function. I dream of pens and scissors and phone numbers at hand and handy recycling and composting and easy access to files and bags and boxes and wood screws and shelf brackets all at the ready. I recall that Le Corbusier tried that idea out with his form-types and the problem was that forms do not stay typical for long. Even evolution ratted out his conceit, as he resized the Modulor to the new average human reality.

The falsehood in this whole approach to design is that the goal transmutes into an object. A wardrobe, a desk, a filing cabinet, a programmable closet. But the functions that elude my everyday are not the kind of problem that is solved by an object. I wonder at the conceit of environmental determinism as I leave one house where daily tasks have been minimized into a series of fluid, nearly intuitive motions for a new house where that fluidity will remain challenged and it is clear that the solution lies not in any object but in me, the Modulor, who must be modulated to his environment. The Farnsworth and Ford houses are but more dramatic examples of how every house adapts us to it. And it isn’t even so much the architect demanding behavior of the client, because the real reason you can’t design your way out of life is that life NEVER. REMAINS. STATIC. Those fluid motions of the morning were not the same three years ago. Last June the architect Jack Hartray commented that the great mischief of Modernist architecture was the conceit that you could plan for all needs. He was talking about the Time-Life building, designed to corporate models long deceased but it could as easily refer to the IBM building, being converted into something else as we speak, or our Swiss friend’s Modulor, who wouldn’t sit still or even stay the same size over time.

End of Sprawl?

March 6, 2008

new const lkpt95

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Is the inexorable march to the suburban fringe over? As the recession follows the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, there are interesting developments in real estate economics and geography. I have taught Preservation Planning for more than a dozen years and I would always exhort students that real estate values, having gone up over the last 30 years, could also go down, as history shows and capitalism demands. That was probably the part of the lecture that elicited a “yeah, sure.” Now, we are at “I told you so” and who better to tell you than someone who just bought and sold houses in the worst market in a quarter century? But enough about me.

The Atlantic ran a fascinating story this week by Christopher Leinberger called “The Next Slum” describing new suburban developments where foreclosures are the norm, and how these areas could become the slums of the 21st century. (Thanks to Jim Peters for forwarding the article) They will eventually be chopped up into rentals, Leinberger predicts, although he notes they won’t take the hacking as well as their permanently-built predecessors in the city did: “Many recently built homes take what structural integrity they have from drywall – their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up.” That’s another “I told you so.” What’s worse, a student of mine noted, cul-de-sac McMansions are being stripped of their copper wire, pipes, fixtures and all as homeowners and scavengers take everything they can before the bank takes back the house. Crime is up and suburban schools are soon to follow.

“The Next Slum” notes how urban areas are now commanding significant price premiums over suburban areas in cities from Washington D.C. and Seattle to New York and Portland. Now, you could say these are the usual suspects: New York City has an economic geography all its own, and Washington D.C. is not a real place, but it is happening in Chicago too and Cincinnati can’t be far behind. As gasoline prices rise, sprawl becomes significantly more expensive. We advertised our house with the heading “No Car Needed” because of quick access to two train lines and EVERY commercial need within walking distance. Leinberger’s article notes that train-connected suburbs (he specifically mentions Evanston, which has half as many “L” lines as Oak Park) will “do just fine” in the new economic geography.

This morning the Chicago Tribune reported that a rosy 2008 is predicted for downtown commercial real estate. But NOT for suburban commercial real estate. Vacancy rates downtown are dropping and rents are rising. In the suburbs, vacancy will rise and rents will stay flat. What’s going on? An immediate cause is the housing market itself – all those “Mortgages ‘R Us” shops aren’t renting space anymore. Another is that construction slowdowns put a premium on existing space, and a HUGE factor is gasoline. That, plus the increase in downtown residential puts more people in the inner city commercial market.

A 50-year trend of dispersal and sprawl is ending and a new trend of concentration is starting. Sustainability and “Green” will help as well – it is cheaper and easier to heat a high-rise than those one-story boxes they built in suburbia (no matter what kind of windows they have). Leinberger notes that New York City is the most sustainable “state” in the union thanks to highrises, public transportation and walkability. This doesn’t answer the preservation problem, since you can still have urban teardowns and what Blair Kamin called “Curbcut Classicism” that turned the 1900 block of Burling in Lincoln Park into a Vegas casino stageset, a series of numbingly obvious Lollapallazzos. But at least we aren’t fighting the abandonment that characterized cities in the postwar decades.

demolishing memory

March 2, 2008

fords fiat

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Steve Chapman in the Tribune has an excellent opinion piece about the rush to demolish the building where the NIU shootings took place recently. Here is a brief quote:
“You don’t squander $40 million to erase a memory that can’t be erased. Lots of places have witnessed nightmarish events. But we normally don’t punish the building.”
He then goes on to point out all of the places we didn’t demolish, from Ford’s Theater to Columbine, University of Texas and Virginia Tech. Lincoln’s assassination hasn’t prevented the ongoing use of Ford’s Theater in Washington (pictured at left). They rehabilitated the FIAT building in Motor Row, where 28 died five years ago in the E2 nightclub tragedy.
Anger at tragedy is understandable, but Chapman’s first sentence is key: demolishing the building won’t demolish the memories. In fact, you don’t want it to and many want a memorial. But memorials are cemeteries, not living places, and they give, as Chapman notes, a validity, a power to the undeserving perpetrator: “Don’t let a psychopath govern you from the grave.”
And don’t turn a workable building into a graveyard. Memorials have their place, as graveyards do. Far better, however, to do the difficult work of rehabilitation. We are rehabilitating a house right now where my wife’s sister and mother died less than a year ago. Some wanted the memories to go away, and of course we wanted the pain to go away but we saw the potential of the house and the need to make it new again, not to erase memories that cannot be erased. The memories abide, but the ghosts will not, nor will sorrow or past owners govern how and why we live in the house. I kept telling everyone I was trying to erase the history of the house, where my wife grew up for a decade, but I was wrong: I’m not trying to erase it. I’m opening a new chapter, making room for the next story, not dwelling on the past at all and not blaming a building for events it did not determine, anymore than I blame Ford’s Theater or the FIAT building. Seeing those two buildings today, rehabilitated, is a very positive experience.