Thursday, July 8, 2010

Commodity and Delight.

The lovable George Carlin.

George Carlin has a hilarious standup routine where he takes the Ten Commandments and distills them into two. It got me thinking about the holy trinity of architecture by Vitruvius: commodity, firmness and delight. Now, really when you think about it, commodity and firmness basically speak of the same thing. They are both dealing with pragmatic concerns. Commodity includes the logical development of program, economy, and integrated systems within the building. Firmness deals with the structural soundness of the building. These are both logical and necessary concerns. A truly successful building should operate efficiently, economically and structurally. So in the tradition of George Carlin I propose we combine these two rules into the all encompassing word of Commodity. Commodity is a much broader word than firmness. It’s a definition that can successfully imply structural integrity.

Delight speaks of the aesthetic will of the architect. It talks of the more intangible practice of creating beauty. Delight is the effort by the architect to integrate all the pragmatic concerns into a visual language that has rhythm and harmony. This is elusive, indefinable, and (removed of context) seemingly arbitrary. Therefore the rule known as Delight could not possibly be combined with Commodity because they do not share similar motivations.

Too much Delight? Frank Gehry.
The impossibility of artistic bias. Walter Gropius House.

Some of the so called Functionalists of the early twentieth century would argue that a building created in perfect commodity would be by it’s very nature delightful. They would say that aesthetic concerns are outcroppings of logical building. If a true pragmatic functionalist were writing this article right now he/she could go further than me. He or she could pair down the Vitruvian triad to only one rule: Commodity. I love the functionalist ideology, and I believe in it as well, but I also acknowledge that it is next to impossible to be completely impartial when designing a building. The aesthetic will of the architect will present itself no matter how hard one tries to repress it. What is fascinating about the Functionalists is that their aesthetic vocabulary (which they think they didn’t have) is actually a creation of functionalist symbolism. Only in hindsight do visual cues begin to emerge in these harsh buildings that attempt to be free of rhetoric and artistic will. Still, I think it is a noble direction to strive in. I believe in the power and posterity of the universal over the individual.

Robert Venturi's diagram of the Functionalist Vitruvian method. (From Learning from Las Vegas).

So, discounting the Functionalists, there are two basic tenets of architecture; Commodity and Delight. The architect must walk a tightrope between aesthetic and pragmatic concerns. This is the dual nature of the architect. By our very nature we are conflicted individuals. We are unsatisfied with total logic. We are unsatisfied with the complete freedom awarded to the fine artist. We are hypocrites towards our own desires. Long live the dual natured architect!

Now for some comedy:

Monday, July 5, 2010

Visit to Greensburg

Progress is born of devastation. Greensburg right after the tornado.

A city reborn. (Photo by Argitect)

Opening note: I am generally averse to using the phrases Green and Sustainable simply because they have lost their meaning with overuse. I will use them here ,however, in the absence of being able to think of elaborate replacements.

The Great Conflagration of Chicago in 1871 was a catalyzing event for architecture. The means and methods for a new way of building were already in place but the urgency was not there. Overnight, the fire leveled the entire metropolitan area of Chicago creating open real estate in a big city. The American spirit of perseverance called for immediate rebuilding of the town. The rising cost of land and the increase in population meant that the town could not be rebuilt the same as it once was. Architects exploited the new industrial technology to meet new demands, and the skyscraper was born. The means and methods for the epoch shift in building were already in place but the fire was the catalyzing event that created the urgency for a new way of building.

Over this past weekend I visited a good friend in Greensburg, Kansas. In May of 2007 an F5 tornado leveled almost 95 percent of the small town killing eleven people. The never-ending American spirit of perseverance called for an immediate end to mourning and a swift rebuilding. I have a romantic vision of the leaders of the town huddled tightly around a table in a FEMA trailer with fingers on a map of Greensburg. In that humid and cramped meeting the idea came to not only rebuild the town, but to make it new. They decided to make Greensburg a green town. In other words, they would rebuild their great little town not as a duplication of what it once was, but as an entirely new and unprecedented city of buildings made in a way that are responsible and caring towards the earth. This is an amazing feat considering that the town mostly consists of staunch conservatives that believe in tradition. But, whether you are liberal or conservative the means for creating green buildings is not only the responsible thing to do, it is cost saving in the long run and will last longer. It is the logical solution.

Greensburg City Hall. (Photo by Argitect)
The Stunning new museum in Greensburg. (Photo by Argitect.)

Well, I’m here visiting in 2010 and there is a large handful of important new buildings built to exacting standards for the maximum in responsible earth conscious design. There is a wind farm that supplies the power to the city. There is a water collection system on Main Street that collects the water for a cistern. On Main Street there is an incubator business building, a couple new banks, and the new City Hall all built to LEED standards. The city hall is the star of Main Street. It is the first LEED Platinum city hall in the entire United States and utilizes solar and geothermal heating. In true phoenix fashion the building is partially clad in bricks recovered from the rubble of the tornado. This is a potent symbol for the brave new town bouncing back from devastation. Nearby is a new LEED Platinum museum designed and built by students at the University of Kansas. The building is stunningly modern, clad mostly in recovered wood that is faced in clear glass panels. It is shocking to see such interesting and fearless modern architecture in such a conservative rural setting. There are no alleviating vernacular features to soften the boldness of this project. It is the best example of the bold new spirit of the town. You just don’t find buildings like this in towns with populations less than 1000!

The Silo Eco Home. (Photo by Argitect)

The hub for all this green activity is found at the Silo Eco-Home, which is the office for Greentown. This is where my friend works. This is the window for visitors to the town. They give tours and show off building products that are environmentally conscious. The best example for the movement however is the house itself, the first in a chain of a proposed handful of case studies meant to showcase possibilities for economical green home building. It has a solar panel for electricity, a green roof, a water run-off garden, a permeable driveway, composite recycled countertops, rapidly renewable bamboo floors, super efficient toilets, and many other features. It also reminds us that the best way to be green is to reuse materials. The railings on the stairway are made of discarded farm machinery parts. The kitchen was designed around some cabinet doors that were recovered from a dilapidated house right outside of town.

Besides being green, another requirement for the new buildings in town is that they must be tornado proof. Regionalism in architecture is influenced not only by climate and local materials, but by what kinds of disasters are prevalent in the area. Had Greensburg been the result of an earthquake or a flood, the new buildings would have been built differently.

After spending several days in Greensburg it really sunk in how truly amazing and unlikely all this was. A small town struck down by the worst of tornadoes rebuilds with bravery, open mindedness and an eye to the future. The communities around Greensburg are dying fast. The small towns once sustained by agriculture are now surrounded by corporate farms that have taken the local livelihood away. Wilmore is a nearby town that is on the abyss. The residents are all elderly and it is doubtful their homes will be occupied after they pass on. The town will live out the span of its residents and that’s it. Greensburg Greentown has the tenacity and perseverant spirit to overcome this fate by adopting a progressive new way of building. Not only is it responsible building, it is a tourist attraction and a magnet for new residents interested in living in a new kind of town. This is one of the most amazing examples ever of the adage; “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

The means and methods for a new greener way of building have slowly emerged in the last forty years. It is only in the last ten years that a catalyzing event has signaled an epoch shift in the way we build. We finally have an urgency to build this way. The tornado in Greensburg is a reminder and model for how a new town can be built in a responsible manner. The members of the Greentown initiative also acknowledge that these methods can and should be implemented in all cities in already existing buildings. The best way to be green is to reuse existing structures and retrofit them with new methods of operation. Now, obviously Greensburg is not Chicago. The epoch shift here is much more subtle. We still live in an industrial age, but the circumstances and motives for building have fundamentally changed. The recent never ending oil spill is yet one more shot fired in the call for a better, more responsible future. This future lies with a humbler humanity.

The beautiful new Greensburg School. (Photo by Argitect)