Dreams
Beauty and Utility

My Friend, the Architect (Part Three of A Conversation)

Hometown_2 [The following is a continuation of my instant message conversation on Christian faith and the built environment with my architect friend, Andy.  For Parts One and Two, see the posts of September 18th and 20th.]

AO says:

    Hi SW - shall we pick up with gridded communities?

SW says:

    That's as good a place as any.

AO says:

    The gridded street layout is pretty modern.  It's generally most effective where the land is flat and valuable.  I know you're a proponent of obvious order in design - is there a right way to order a city?  Is a grid the right way?

SW says:

It can be efficient, and if I imagine a city like Paris, for example, were it all curved streets and cul-de-sacs, it would be difficult to get around.

SW says:

Funny that we started here -- I just skimmed a section in Gorringe's book on suburbs, mentioning the gridded cities of Levitts (Levittown, for example).

AO says:

The curved streets in Paris go with the Seine and the hills.  Is that relevant?

SW says:

Yes!  It is.

AO says:

Levittown

  has other issues . . .

SW says:

I think the built environment should take advantage of and cooperate with the natural environment

SW says:

My problem, biblically, is that places that ignore the natural environment and the need that people have for community and beauty, will ultimately fail.

AO says:

That sounds like a Biblical description of order.  That relates to Genesis' comments about taking dominion of nature in a perfect garden

SW says:

I think so.

AO says:

Yes, that's a good highlight of a modern problem.  And I believe that's correct that ignoring nature will cause even ultimate failure.  That's worth a few provoking examples: 1) Manhattan, the most unnatural island in the world, but the most prosperous 2) I recently saw a proposal to fill in the Hudson to add much needed real estate to Manhattan - this is a bad idea, right?  3) Ulmstead, master landscape architect - literally moved mountains (or at least large hills) to create the beauty of the Biltmore landscape - was this okay?  4) Nitrogen runoff - whole new sections of law and building code have been written to attempt to compensate for the problems of clear cutting to make way for parking lots.  Climate change is linked to area of asphalt.  5) Falling Water – Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, a house built on top of a waterfall.

SW says:

Yes, some places we have come to love, like Manhatten, or Biltmore, though they were built at great expense to the natural environment and great alteration of topography.  They become a new landscape. But I think it better to respect what's there -- not unalterable, but carefully alterable.

AO says:

Jesus said we could throw mountains into the sea.  Are you ever open to this option if the result is some greater beauty?

SW says:

Ha!  Different context.  But yes, I don’t think landscapes and environments are sacrosanct.  The better thought I have is to look at what's there, appreciate it, and try to build with it, letting it enhance what we do.

SW says:

That whole thing of Adam naming animals implies a real knowing of the natural order, so much so that he could give appropriate names.  We should know what's around us and then respect it.

AO says:

I agree.  I would love to see a shopping center molded around an flowing landscape, taking advantage of the natural space in some profoundly creative and integrative ways.

SW says:

Cost is a factor that kills such design, isn’t it?

AO says:

Cost.  No, cost does not kill design.  A perverse sense of economy becomes an excuse that kills design.  A developer (I've had some experience with box store developments, so I'm going to stay on this thread.) assumes that maximum profit can be made by a building of maximum square footage at minimum expense.  Meanwhile, Amazon.com is invented, making shopping centers irrelevant.  Developers and retailers should be profoundly more creative and resourceful than they are, and easily could be.

SW says:

Interesting -- news to me -- but you're on scene!  So it's possible to take a modest budget and "design with nature?"

AO says:

In many ways, yes, absolutely.  Some answers to this are fundamental: construction is at a cost/square foot.  Smaller homes are cheaper to build, cheaper to cool, cheaper to maintain, exponentially less harmful to nature.  If we understand better the value of space, we can save huge amounts of money.  Square footage is much more expensive than good design.

SW says:

I agree.  I think I could downsize if space were valued more and used more efficiently.  But most of what I see built around this city are bigger and bigger homes -- quite amazing.

AO says:

But, this brings us back to cities.  How can a city be designed with nature?  In a city, nature is cordoned off from the built environment intentionally.  If development happened in the garden, would it have looked like Central park?

SW says:

Cities inevitably disrupt the natural environment, and the density is desirable and really can help protect natural areas outside the city from sprawl.  But I think we can provide parks, communal gardens (I've seen this), and even room for wildlife (like Central Park).

SW says:

I don't remember how successful it was, but Montgomery County, MD had a wedge and corridors plan, allowing high density around metro and limited access highways, progressively, and severely limiting development outside these zones.  It did attract some court challenges.  The density obviously impacts the natural environment, but it prevented more widespread harm.

AO says:

Yes, that's relevant.  Babel was more efficient because it brought so many people together to share resources.  Anything without moderation is dangerous - all city isn't a great idea, and sprawling suburbs is a perpetual waste of almost everything.

SW says:

I agree.  And yet, I wanted to live in the suburbs.  Why?  Well, I want some privacy, and yet community.  I wanted green space around me, a yard for children, and yet other children to play with in a safe place.  These things aren't bad, but when we all want them, they create something ultimately not very livable.

AO says:

There's been some really fun architecture dealing with this question.  Bucky Fuller, of course, with his geodesic domes attempted to test the integration of nature and city to the extreme, but more recently, we have wonderfully creative actual solutions by Norman Foster and Glenn Merkut as just a couple examples.

SW says:

Name-dropping, Andy!  Tell me about their designs, because I don’t know them.

AO says:

Foster has a new skyscraper in NYC with an indoor ice-waterfall that cools the whole tower.  In Europe, he's been a pioneer of adding gardens throughout skyscrapers at various heights.  He ventilates his towers in extremely efficient ways that fill buildings with fresh air.  He's got one tower design on the books now that is aerodynamic in such a way that it actually generates its own electric power through strategically located wind turbines.  I don't know enough about Merkut, but he's made great creative moves with homes that capture rain water and use the resources of the wind and the landscape to make beautiful, simple homes.

AO says:

WakeCounty too is notable here as well.  For example, the school board has made many creative and ingenious moves to demand "green" systems and materials in schools.

SW says:

Oh -- I may have to change my opinion of them!

AO says:

Well, the school board still has problems, but the buildings are getting, well, smarter anyway.

AO says:

It's still an interesting question.  The biblical tabernacles weren't "green" really.  The new heaven uses a lot of materials that are assumedly difficult to mine - maybe God has a better idea.  But it's a morally relevant question today because of our excess.

AO says:

You had a question about work?

SW says:

Yes: Work is obviously not what God intended, so it has elements of toil and is impacted by considerations other than simply the true, the good and the beautiful.  How do you deal with this?  How do you try and redeem the work is some significant way?

AO says:

Brother, we've been friends long enough that you know this is a personal struggle for me.    For example, I did some early designs several months ago on elevations (facades) for a new development.  I prayed while I worked then, I sweated through the details of the proportions and the integrality of the design, ya da ya da.  I liked it.  My boss liked it, and the client liked it.  The town really liked it.  So, all these things encouraged me, and I came to conclude that in some way, my sketches of these elevations were "right."  They were true.  Months went by, I got pulled off that job for certain reasons (a long, but not irrelevant story.)  Another project manager was put on the job.  Now, I'm back on the job in a subordinate position.  He's re-drawn my elevations!  I think they're "wrong".  If I take this too far in my mind, you know, I think it's something that I, as a Christian, have to fight against.  I think that proportions are a moral certainty.  But if I fight the wrong way, I'm not much of a "team player."

SW says:

Yes, you have prayer and gentle persuasion at your disposal, though you can be assertive and yet respectful.  You work within a structure of authority, and to obey the 5th Commandment, you owe respect to the superior and prayer.  I have as yet had no occasion where a superior told me to act in a way that violated God's law, so I may disagree but I go along. (Sometimes grumbling!)

SW says:

This tension exists in every job, I think, for the Christian.

AO says:

For me, it becomes an issue of communication, maybe education, definitely of humility.  All great weaknesses for me and most architects I know.  Friends have shown me scripture that seems to suggest that we let God sort out a lot of this, which is right, but it's a challenge to know what to fight for, especially in design.  Often in design, the best ideas are the ones you can't describe, and that's challenging.

SW says:

I can see that.

SW says:

Humility is in short supply in many professions.

AO says:

Artists often get caught in this question of "Truth is beauty and beauty truth."  I don't necessarily believe that. I think truth was here first.  However, if it is a correct adage, then for me to draw an elevation that is not beautiful is to lie.  But, my project managers rarely appreciate me calling them liars.

SW says:

Yes!  I agree.  Truth was first, but, before that even, was love.  Speaking the truth in love is critical.  And challenging.

SW says:

So may gray areas, requiring prudence.

SW says:

Well, we better wrap. . . Any last words?

AO says:

Yes, it's a good conclusion.  I think it's good to tie this conversation to the practical.  It's easy to talk ethereally about art, and that's interesting, but easily irrelevant.  Also, I think it's important to remember that the questions of beauty apply to every profession.  Also, I think it's important to remember that discernment is appropriate within our daily experience -

SW says:

Good words

AO says:

not just in the movies we watch, but also the food that we eat and the retailers we visit, and the cities we promote.

SW says:

Yes, and I think it is communal -- that is, we do it in the context of the Body of Christ, learning from one another.

AO says:

Man - cities.  A bunch of people have tried this one, you know?  Just within the last century, we've gone through a lot of extremes.  What a wild ride is design and thought.  But, the gospel does not change.  Our need for our creator doesn't change.  Our need for each other and for the church is the same.  And our creative call has yet to be revoked.  Thanks SW.

SW says:

    You bet.

Comments