Friday, May 28, 2010

A New Crystal Palace

The UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo is one of the most stunning structures produced in years. It's an innovative translation of the Crystal Palace at the first World Expo, held in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. That structure created a memorable design heritage all over Europe.

This new structure is a fibrous construct of light, using acrylic fibers that move like waving grass, and have seeds embedded in each fiber that were collected in a bio-diversity project. This allows scientists to clone any of the plants within the seed bank. A short film of the structure in motion and light is here. It's a startling and beautiful concept.

This Expo in China is ostensibly all about new concepts of environmental sensitivity and a display of green concepts and materials. Unfortunately the UK Pavilion is created out of material that is completely manufactured from non-renewable fossil fuels and that degrades over time in exposure to UV radiation, unlike metals and glass of the old Crystal Palace. The source of this fossil fuel is, of course, oil which is extracted by one of its sponsors, British Petroleum, famously dealing with one of the most massive spills ever seen in an ecologically sensitive area that also provides seafood and marshland barriers for hurricanes. The promo for BP is a call for far more extensive deep-water drilling.

It would appear that this "clean sustainable and local" energy solution is not as presented in this PR, and that it's painfully obvious that we must shift away from this toxic method of obtaining energy that dumps carbon loads into the environment. The Expo would unfortunately seem to be more about China's green washing than a real demonstration of sustainable approaches.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mapping It

Technology is beginning to evolve that easily uses digital data to map characteristics of place, ecology and geology. This information is becoming available all throughout the web, in many instances they're published online from databases collected by foundations and non-profits. Since a problem has to be defined by its particular characteristics before people can sort out a solution, these mapped data representations are invaluable in making the character of a place and its integration with the natural terrain patently clear. This leads to effective solutions rather than so much of the destructive activity that we've seen in human habitation.

One tool that's used for this in engineering and infrastructure projects is the GIS database, which can provide all the information for the land gradients, water, energy flows, geotechnology, hydrology and so forth. Using it in established urban areas to design and engineer complex responses to natural and built environments is becoming more and more necessary. With this approach, large areas of urban fabric can be studied with alternate scenarios that provide realistic projections of how new projects will benefit society as well as reduce their impact on natural systems.

A tool now made available for the larger global view of the natural environment has been developed by the Nature Conservancy and the University of California Press is the "Atlas of Global Conservation". Some of the maps are online in an interactive format for very general classifications that begin to identify the regional ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain.

As this blog describes the project, there are eye-opening global maps that display incredible amounts of information that are not apparent in local studies that isolate small areas without any sense of the connection to the entire biosphere. These global maps include Freshwater Fish, Forest Clearing, Into the Wild, and Salt Marshes which provide pure data about the state of the world. These maps are supported by comprehensive data surveys that have not been undertaken before. This allows us to see now, in ways not possible before, the vast ecological regions in an accurate view that drive the natural processes we depend on. So we can understand what we're doing as we continue to alter the natural systems - or maybe not.

To quote the article in the Spring 2010 issue of Nature Conservancy magazine:

To create the atlas, a team of Conservancy scientists asked researchers and conservationists around the globe to share their information. The response was overwhelmingly generous, says lead author Jonathan Hoekstra. Individuals and institutions offered up entire databases - in some cases, the results of a life's work.

Ultimately the Conservancy collected and incorporated the work of some 70 institutions representing hundreds of scientists, says Hoekstra.

And from Nature Conservancy Lead Scientist Sanjayan:

We're at the point where we can see the worst and do the most. Forty years from now will be too late. Forty years ago - on the first Earth Day - we didn't fully know what was going on.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There's Still Hope

From Jane Goodall, a call for breaking down barriers to allow the young people to deal with the legacy they've inherited:

As the words of Altamira were written by Khalil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lessons from Japan

Japan has influenced American architecture for over a century now. Frank Lloyd Wright was an avid collector and broker of Japanese prints - to tide him over those dry spells in his career. It also has a deep influence in the Greene & Greene bungalow style here in Pasadena, and of course in much of modern architecture. The zen temples of Japan, such as the Ryoan Ji Garden in Kyoto (picture above), are spectacular in their rendition of simplicity, as well as an expression of the deep structure of the Fibonacci series embedded in the proportional principles of nature. This system of proportion is derived from understanding natural patterns, and is known in Western culture as "The Golden Mean".

However, it goes beyond the aesthetic now, and fundamental principles applied in the design of structures in the Japanese tradition reflect a necessary conservation of all means and energies. This is discussed in an excellent article by Azby Brown, a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, is an artist and designer who has lived in Japan since 1985. On the faculty of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, he is the director of the KIT Future Design Institute in Tokyo. His essay, "Bent by the Sun" describes the principles of sustainability as they have evolved in Japanese culture over thousands of years.

A snippet from the slide show (below) uses very simple diagrams to illustrate the principles that Brown has observed during his time in Japan. He emphasizes the approach to "multiform solutions" and efficient processes. These traditions are being broken down by Japan's industrial revolution in the late 19th century, ironically about the time its influence in America was ascendant, so these lessons need to be preserved.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Visualizing the Future

How does this future growth - even as it is driven by marketing and state enforced community growth - and proposed changes to existing urban areas become integrated with the needs of local communities? Developers have learned to be far more persuasive and aggressive about getting their projects into communities, although they do have to listen to the market when it comes to income based upon retail and commercial rentals as well as housing numbers. There are visualization techniques evolving to address the issue of context and site which go beyond the boundaries of individual structures and into the way that people want to experience their neighborhoods. Grist magazine has a demonstration of this technique, used in public presentations very frequently today.

The sophistication of this technique is that it makes a lot more square footage appear very human-scaled and vibrant, with cars and traffic generated by these scenarios somehow left out. It's an animated representation that is about as real as the old stand-alone building renderings that are part of the dog-and-pony show in community public hearings across the country. It's a sales tool, not a way of mapping the actual experience of an urban environment.

Ways of digitally exploring the environment are under development as tools to capture and understand existing spaces, see how they're linked together, and allow problem-solving to take place in a way that leads to creative and effective solutions that get way from the developer formulas. An example of this kind of mapping, seeing and recording of the urban experience is a system being developed by Microsoft.

The documentation of human-scale interactive experience is an important part of looking at an entire area and the impact of changes on the community as a whole. These digital tools - such as the Google Earth digital simulations of urban areas and their adjacent open areas, natural features and topographic structures - will permit the study and understanding of how urban structures can integrate with environmental processes and contribute to the conservation and preservation of resources instead of demolishing them with "dumb" buildings and roads. These kinds of studies can pinpoint areas that need to be devoted to open space and natural processes right in the urban environment because they're part of a larger ecological system that must remain functional if people are going to rely on its resources of fresh water and clean air.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

You WILL Build

Whether they come or not. Hot off the presses from Housing California:


On April 8, 2010, the California Transportation Commission adopted the 2010 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) Guidelines. The revised guidelines reflect new requirements imposed by SB 375 (Steinberg, 2008) to link transportation and land-use planning in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Housing California and our partners at Public Advocates, ClimatePlan, and other progressive organizations devoted significant time to ensuring the guidelines accurately reflect the language and spirit of SB 375, especially relating to public participation, housing and transit affordability, and environmental protection. Language added to the guidelines at our urging includes:

  • Specific suggestions on how regional planning agencies can effectively engage low-income residents and their representatives (See Chapter 4 RTP Consultation and Coordination).
  • Requirements for use of public participation tools, including computer simulations, that clearly demonstrate how various planning scenarios will impact residents' lives (See Chapter 3.2 Sketch Modeling).
  • Recommendations for modeling improvements that demonstrate the link between housing affordability, wages, and greenhouse gas emissions and that show how various planning scenarios impact housing affordability (See Chapter 3.2).
  • Guidance on estimating the projected housing need for the full RTP planning period (See Section 6.25 Sustainable Communities Strategy Development: Addressing Housing Needs in the SCS)

Housing California is proud to announce that our SB 375 resources are now online! Resources include:

Obviously our state needs to take a lesson from Spain rather than forcing draconian overbuilding that generates tremendous carbon loads and diminishes our resources.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Roots of Community

The memory of place and the connections we have to its spaces, the human drama that plays out in its folds and crevices, the dynamics of the traverse through its pathways and streets, all create a deep experience of rooting in place. It's important to weave this fabric of life into our communities, and create places that engage and nurture, so that people can pursue their lives and fill them with meaning. This is the ideal behind the founding of our country, the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness as outlined in our Declaration of Independence.

It's not the declaration of consumerism, as our now corporate culture has declared us; not as citizens, but to simply go out out and "shop" as former President Bush famously directed the people of this country upon the impact of the jets into the Twin Towers. The cogs of a market society have broken our connections and created a world of instant gratification rather than a slower, deeper push into the realities of the natural world and its inhabitants that inform wisdom in living.

Like a tree planted by stream beds that gives shade and oxygen for many lifetimes, strong roots hold firm in the crosswinds of change and financial upheaval that our global culture brings to us, as well as the turbulence of climate change to come. Building community is crucial to our collective success in weathering the storms. As it stands right now, we're building corporate and investment shells that drain the life out of people and the natural world; that which gives us life and freedom.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Fixing Transit - Can We Do It?

In an interesting article series in the LA Times, reporter David Lazarus is reporting out on traffic conditions in Los Angeles and highlighting the angst of the commuters trying to negotiate the complex fragments of transit systems in the LA basin in order to get from one side of town to another. Well, you can't get there from here. While the article is based upon interviews, anecdotal experience and some good research, it amounts to a one-person poll with the standard suggestions that are made for all transit issues across the country. But it seems the Mayor wants "professional" advice from someone who is not involved with the transit network design, strategy or maintenance. This is astonishing because it takes a deep understanding of transit networks as well as urban form, and experience with the costs and efforts to keep transportation systems operational. I don't know if this means a complete loss of confidence in the MTA, pushback at LADOT, or if this is simply meant to be a PR exercise, but this seems to be shirking the actual transportation planning responsibility from the top.

There are urban transportation experts out there who understand the structure of transit networks, how the geography of a region is critical to successful transit strategies, and how all the forms of transit form a network of systems that have to be balanced. It's not about throwing various disconnected schemes at an existing dysfunctional urban form and transit network, it has to be about coming to grips with the fundamental geographic issues. One of these folks is Jarrett Walker, a transit planner who has studied many urban transit systems, including Los Angeles. He has a blog up, Human Transit, which is linked to just about every resource of consequence on this subject, including the article linked here which talks about how the form of the city is crucial, and mentions that LA is the extreme example of a sprawled out urban form to the point of dissolution.

However, there is an old backbone that is being built upon by the MTA's light rail system to a large extent, and that drove the development into the areas that we see as subregional centers today. That's the old Red Line system built by Henry Huntington to create land development opportunities all over the region. It followed geographies and linked inland areas to the beaches, and worked well until the population grew out of scale and the highway system replaced it with sprawl-generating freeways out to distant urban fringe areas that became the subdivisions.

In an article on the Transport Politic blog in October of 2008, Yonah Freeman lays out the overall political and funding transit situation in Los Angeles, and asks for voter approval of the County's Measure R, which would fund some of the necessary transportation system expansion. Measure R passed, and is now in the implementation phase. Again, not without significant controversy and required local review of CEQA.

The current transit snarl has created another agenda for development, as well. There's tremendous pressure by the Redevelopment agency in Los Angeles to create the public impression that redevelopment monies should be spent along transitways to take down historic neighborhoods and replace them with high density development. Los Angeles is one city that has a historic legacy along these transitways because of its growth along the old commuter lines. This is a legacy that should not be obliterated by new developments, but rather enhanced and preserved as distinct neighborhoods so that the transit system consists of destinations that people actually want to go to and live in.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Afoul of Natural Capital

It's the twenty-eighth day after the fiery rupture of BP's oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, and only now the massive oil leak seems to be slowing to a close. It has been called a "transforming event" (good diagrams here) for the way that this rupture has been handled, both environmentally and in terms of risk to the industry. In observing the ongoing efforts to cap this leak, as well as the expanding impact of the oil on the surface and in the newly tracked underwater plumes, the magnitude of this accident becomes almost overwhelming. Yet this kind of activity in environmentally sensitive areas - as in this case our seafood supply - carries risks that have, at least until now, seemed manageable in the traditional costs and balances of business risk and accounting.

There is a systemic way of looking at this called Public Choice theory, which relates to the economics of government in that there is a lack of information feedback, as well as limited capacity to respond to major events like Hurricane Katrina. It's endemic to government processes and the slow filtering of information to the decision-makers who are not experts in the situation. When regulations and legal structures allow a cap on the costs of risks, such as BP has, then the operation will tend to take the risks that would produce far greater damage than if the company were to be held completely liable. Hence the position of the Obama administration that BP take full responsibility for the effects of this rupture, not just that which has been previously bounded by contracts and regulations.

One way to understand this is to briefly read this fascinating "Oil Electric" blog, which explains in some detail what exactly is on the floor of the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. It's not a natural environment any more, there's an entire network of pipes and rigs throughout this shallower part of the ocean. It is an entire underwater industrial system that is interconnected and runs miles of pipe on and under the sea floor. Actually it's the impact crater from the asteroid that impacted the earth 65 million years ago and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Has something to do with all the oil there, I suppose.

So the natural environment, or what's left of it, has co-existed with this industrial system for over a century. These rigs have evolved into platforms that are self-sufficient small cities; some are movable, others are permanent platforms. These permanent structures ultimately become a haven for sea life after the oil platform is no longer in use. But what kinds of risks are acceptable, particularly now that we've seen the "worst case" that has decimated sea life and the ecology of the entire southern coast?

A new kind of balance sheet, that gives weight to the true value of natural systems and the life support that they provide, has been evolving globally to benchmark the true risks to all life and their systems from the human activities that impact them. This is Natural Capital, and it takes into account the extended costs of human impact on natural systems - our planetary resources. Key to these measurements is the value of biodiversity in ecological systems. This event will no doubt move the discussion forward very rapidly now.

Friday, May 14, 2010


US Government agencies have been keeping careful track of the weather disasters since 1980, chart is above. This is the kind of timeline of changing weather tracked by the benchmark of frequency and cost in dollars that shows in straight numbers what's been happening over the last 30 years. The direct costs, not including the human and cultural damages, have been escalating dramatically even as the argument continues about what is happening.

This issue is outlined in Storm Warning, by Lydia Dotto, the the book on which a more recent book, The Great Warming is based. A summary from Amazon:

The Ice Storm of 1998. The flooding of Manitoba of 1997. Wherever you live, it's likely you've experienced some extreme weather lately. A recent report from the Red Cross stated that natural catastrophes in 1998 has wreaked the most havoc on record, and warned that a series of "super-disasters" could be imminent.

What's behind all this stormy weather?
In Storm Warning, science writer Lydia Dotto shows there's strong evidence our climate is changing due to human interference, and that the events of recent years are just a dress rehearsal for dramatic changes in the earth's climate.

Climate conferences like those held in Rio in 1992 and Kyoto in 1997 were supposed to set the world on a course for change. Instead, they have led to political squabbles, watered-down resolutions and a disturbing failure to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that have been targeted as the main culprit in creating the global warming trend. Storm Warning illustrates the dire consequences of delay and inaction on both the personal and political fronts. In the climate change game the stakes are disturbingly high -- with the very future of life on our planet at risk.

The Great Warming, by Brian Fagan is a more recent book that ties the climate changes of past history to the decimation of entire cities and cultures, such as the Mayan civilization and other indigenous peoples living in the American Southwest and in South America. These areas have been historically documented as being vulnerable to drought, the most destructive weather condition known to human civilizations. No water means no food, as well. He outlines the methods by which many of these earlier civilizations were able to flexibly live within the rather sparse environment until long droughts sent the whole city packing. At least then, there was someplace to run to.

There's a video here, and a movie based upon the book coming to a theater near you soon.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mobilizing for It

The Earth Policy Institute is developing a blueprint to effectively implement the rapid change that needs to occur in order to reduce carbon emissions that our entire civilization is built on right now. Their summary approach to public policy and the outline for their "Plan B 4.0" is here, and their publication is available in seven languages. It's an important strategic and social networking outreach effort. Basically this says that there isn't time to wait for the big global consortium to resolve agreements about it. Very simple and effective things can be implemented right now.

Even as this is going on, the UN has come out with a position paper stating that global ecosystems are perilously close to collapse, the timeframe is urgent. While Copenhagen did not produce the necessary global consensus and commitments for countries to move ahead in concert with policies and strategies, it did raise significant awareness on the need for action and establishment of benchmarks and monitoring.

From Earth Policy Institute:

Cutting CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2020 will take a worldwide mobilization at wartime speed. The alternative to business as usual, Plan B calls for cutting net carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020. This will allow us to prevent the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, already at 384 parts per million (ppm), from exceeding 400 ppm, thus keeping future global temperature rise to a minimum.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is Green Disruptive?

The fundamental aspect of "going green" is to create a huge shift in how our behavior impacts planetary ecosystems. It's going to create some large disruptions as the price increases kick in due to the costs of burning oil and coal, the shifts in employment and business practices move faster, and the reversal of living patterns that change the underpinnings of global economics. Climate change and its impact on resources, such as food and water, will bring hefty price tags and create unpredictable events that threaten the stability that financial investments and transactions rely on. So we're in for a wild ride.

The application of technology to solve some of these issues rests in not just the ability to creatively disrupt business and industry and generate new solutions to this problem, but to change the game, and change it rapidly. The speed at which these adaptations to a changing environment move is astonishing, and with these changes riding the whipsaw of social networking we're going to see very dynamic cultural changes in short order. Problem-solving solutions will emerge quickly as the old order falls away, and people's lives shift from physical accretion to information accretion.

Technology can help with this transition if it's used appropriately to create better connections, human environments, and behavioral shifts that are constructive with respect to the human footprint on this planet. It's not just on the ground. NASA earth satellites and other technologies allow us to see our planet and manage our impact on it at a large scale. There's nothing like seeing those images of massive fires, pollution plumes in estuaries, migrating oil slicks, changes in snow and ice packs, the shifting of deserts, to see quickly and accurately how our collective behavior is impacting the planet. This allows us to make effective decisions about how we have to change so as not to decimate the planetary ecosystems as we are doing now.

Most importantly, if we can see, we can achieve consensus far more quickly than the old corrupt political structures could by leveraging the influence of power, religion and money in order to preserve the status quo. The issues will necessarily have to be solved in a global fashion, with the traditional forum structures opened to allow those to sit at the table who did not have a voice before.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Of the Earth

My foray into one of the more important sacred places in Europe took place after some exploration of the powerful spaces of the Grand Canyon and the ruins left behind by its indigenous peoples. A vast monumental effort, clearly tied to the visions of the skies and stars, is standing on the plain of Salisbury in England. A short history of the development of Stonehenge as we know it is here.

It is an established fact that Stonehenge was an astronomical observatory for both solar and lunar observations. One of its functions was the determination of the summer solstice date using the summer solstice sunrise. At the 21st of June the rising sun in the North East shines its light in between the Heel Stone onto the Alter Stone at the center of the Trilithons or horseshoe of Stonehenge. A more comprehensive study of its astronomical alignment and structure is here.

What struck me about this place was the strong presence of a mindfulness of 5000 years ago; the structure and scale of something that has left no imprint in history, yet has a resonance that strikes me as did the ruins of Tihuanaco in Bolivia, the Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico, and the ruins of Mesa Verde in Colorado . Human presence and intent, lost in the abandonment of a historic place because of famine or drought. Yet the patterns remain, giving up their secrets reluctantly, if at all.

Ancient folk worked with what they had in their technology and resources, but had no lack of comprehension about their ecology, their environment or its resources. While they lived more or less in concert with natural forces, there were times of extremes of weather - mostly drought - that forced them to relocate to other lands. This would tend to indicate that there is a set of boundaries within which human consumption and sustainable existence can coexist. Going past that involves the costs of technology - energy needs and its attendant pollution and carbon dump - that are now threatening the global balance of climate and biology.

I'm just hoping that we can readjust our priorities while we can.

Monday, May 10, 2010


What is it that makes certain buildings and places so evocative and powerful? It's not so much the style and scale of new structures as how the new structures fit into the context-defined "anchor points" on a site, remain open to urban open space and view corridors, and address existing significant structures and public gardens, etc. that provide the whole site context.

In "plannerspeak" that means to maintain the edges and connections that exist, but perhaps even reinforce them with a startling new form that sees what's there in a way that nobody saw before. Renzo Piano and Steven Holl can do it with entirely new vocabularies (that they've spent decades refining), it's not magic. FLLW did it - in his own inimitable style - with the Fallingwater design after about 3 hours' notice by the client that he was on the way (after studying the site in detail for months, every tree! - context is supreme again)

It's NOT about copying previous examples of style/form/scale, which most folks misunderstand. It's about using some kind of consistent vocabulary in a way that makes it a place you want to be in and inhabit, and express its intent and program clearly.

What most architects understand is that the key to a place is its focus and expression, just as in the remarkable Salk Institute by Louis Kahn in La Jolla. This place is stunning, yet pragmatic. It is designed for expansion (currently underway). But its siting, with that runnel that heads out to sea and is centered on the Summer Solstice sunset, goes far beyond the mundane with a Vision Statement that embodies a key representation of historic scientific innovation & research. The angle of the sun, the line out to sea, create a triangular structure of space out to an infinite horizon that speaks to the euclidean understanding of geometry and science. All the labs and offices are angled along this plaza towards the same view. You see how this works?

That's the driving Vision.

The deeper inspiration in the case of the building for this institute for Salk is that it emerged from his experience of a monastery in Assisi as he was trying to reach for the clarifying insight that resulted in production of the polio vaccine. All of these elements come together in an incredible fusion by Kahn.

The details of the structure and site's programmatic solutions and materials, structure and systems emerge from this initial response. For example, twelve principal ingredients are outlined on this site, and are the things that must be quantified and laid out in order to complete the design. If these elements are consistently applied and fully carried out, it can result in a very successful experience. Sometimes even an iconic presence.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

We Immolate Ourselves Again

The tragedy of the BP platform blowup in the Gulf of Mexico gives lie to the assertions that oil drilling is an acceptable risk in offshore waters. A very comprehensive action is being taken by the Nature Conservancy in response to the blowup and oil spill in the protected marine areas. Their complete first-hand response and report is here. More complete local coverage is at, a New Orleans publication.

There's no way to really make amends to natural systems when this inevitably happens, in particular the Exxon-Valdez destruction which is ongoing in Prince William Sound decades after the incident. Some information about oil spills, their frequency and amounts, are here.

Our economy is simply going to have to shift very quickly to disconnect from these poisonous energy sources before the destruction wipes out ecosystems that provide us with life, food and our deep connection to natural processes at the shorelines. Millions of years ago these interstices and tidepools saw the emergence of life from the sea onto the land, a crucible driven by the tides created in the dance between the earth and the moon.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Architects are the Fashionistas of the building industry, mavens of culture to the Architectural Digest crowd. Nice lambaste of a hard-working profession.

The creative process of architecture has pushed cultural understanding of space since the days of Roman engineering expanding outward to the empire, the development of the barrel vault and arch, on to the Gothic flying buttresses to prop up cathedrals built over many lifetimes, to the domes of St. Paul and Brunelleschi dome at the Cathedral of Florence. Architectural space married to the mystical experience, as it were. Not to mention the Greek temples, the ground of government houses of parliament and bank buildings as memorialized in the Four Books of Architecture by Palladio.

For the rest of architecture history evolution, get out your "History of Architecture", by Sir Bannister Fletcher, otherwise known as "the bible". Many hours of slide lectures in architecture history class only begin to scratch the surface...

Which brings us to some cultural commentary, such as Tom Wolfe's missive on the drawbacks of modern architecture - well written but omits key historical facts. Parody, in essence. Then there's a very cogent dissertation on the deeper workings of the Fashionista line, "American Architects and the Mechanics of Fame" which examines the contemporary system of getting one's name out there in this crazy design business. That doesn't always play out well even for those who gain a reputation during their professional lifetimes.

A friend and mentor of mine, Don Hensman FAIA, was a local architect of note. While his career had its ups and downs, the homes he designed appreciated in value immensely. Shortly before he passed away, I asked him how he felt about that. His wide-eyed retort was that he felt like a starving artist, since like all architects he was paid about 9 percent of its construction value for the design and construction documents services, as well as advice during construction - a period of several years. Subsequently, the Realtors were making 6 percent on the entire appreciated value of the property each time it sold - usually about a 6 month process - far more than an architectural commission.

Nonetheless, there are good and noteworthy architectural accomplishments that are not necessarily by the "names". Architectural Record has an online library of photo galleries of architectural designs around the world, submitted by folks who have captured something unique about buildings and the urban environment.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When It Fails

Sometimes a structure becomes the exemplar of all that doesn't work; the architecture profession deals with this constantly. It generally reflects budgetary and programmatic shortfalls as well as multiple conflicting user demands. Many times it's due to politics, and the need for a physical symbol of an entity or corporation, which most architects are well acquainted with by virtue of experience in many design competitions that are little more than cover for a deal already in place.

A Planetizen article explores all of these issues surrounding the US Pavilion structure at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, which opened this weekend. US reporter Adam Minter also covers this situation in his post on the Pavilion and on the IRS issues it has created.

The end result is a lackluster corporate building that doesn't exude any energy; it's all grounded in the capitalist formulae for pasting commercial structures together as pure mass marketing schemes. No sensibilities about human scale, connecting to ideas, or even minimal green standards, let alone any kind of radical regenerative design.This will not be one of those memorable pavilion designs that endures as a portent of things to come. The hugely controversial Eiffel Tower comes to mind, but there have been many more.

A rather broader picture involves the question about architects and the practice itself; there's some criticism coming out of the design schools and in the online architect news sources about whether the profession itself is corrupt. Much of the commentary centers on the lack of influence that architects have in the way the built environment is developed, although the folks in the driver's seat are actually State and Federal governments, the bankers and institutions. It's all a rather nasty tangle.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Moorings Have Come Loose

This is not a happy post. While I try to stay on the positive and constructive side with respect to the needs for environmental reform and urban planning that incorporates natural processes rather than their destruction, I'm seeing larger forces playing out towards an endgame where everything stops. The whole ship goes down. Unless a game-changer comes along.

All of us are increasingly disenchanted with the system as it exists in our country today; the polarization of the political parties are a symptom of the corporate takeover of what used to be government administration for the common good. Both parties have necessarily sold out and headed towards opposite poles, and none of the big problems are addressed or solved. It's all about who gets the money. Particularly now that budgets are imploding in the US across states and cities, and also in the European Union. The whole house of cards seems to be coming down.

The Goldman-Sachs ponzi scheme built upon CDO's and affordable housing mortgages has played out globablly, Spain being a prime example of what happens when homes are built upon sand - and bubbles. An excellent article in Alternet lays out the basics of the dysfunctional financial empire that was built around things that had no real value: debt.

This has created a deep disconnect with the American public, and a deep alienation with government. This is a very dangerous situation, especially during a recession when people are losing their homes and jobs because of the antics of Wall Street, unfettered by regulation or even common sense.

I can only hope that balance is brought into play across the globe, but that will involve a leveling of the playing field, as Thomas Freidman has pointed out in "The World is Flat" such that the first world living standards will necessarily drift down to approximate those of the third world. We can no longer pollute the planet and consume its resources as if the rest of the world didn't matter.

It matters tremendously.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Seeing It

"There is now little doubt that the collective actions of people are affecting the earth's climate."

There's been a tremendous amount of science developed behind climate change research, and the exact calculations and projections are always subject to debate. But really seeing the changes and experiencing the climate change can help us understand the urgency of changing the course of our civilization from consumption to stewardship and intelligent coexistence with natural forces. Humans have responded to natural forces since the beginning of civilization, and we need to develop ways to curtail the human impact on our planet.

A vivid portrayal, very painstakingly and accurately done, has been produced by photojournalist David Arnold. He rephotographed some astonishing pictographic views taken by Bradford Washington in the 1930's and has assembled them into a traveling museum show. It's written up in Sierra magazine, and the photos are also on Arnold's website, Doublexposure. There's a page up on that site for solutions that must be pursued to avert disastrous climate impact:

  • Demand that your local, state and national governments take actions immediately to mitigate global warming and to make policies to adapt to the realities of our changing climate. We recommend strongly a carbon, instead of a payroll tax that penalizes harmful output and rewards work.
  • Demand that your government lead, support and comply with international treaties regarding climate change.
  • Support an urgent transition to a clean renewable energy future.