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Letters

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on November 30, 2010

We want to hear from you. Letters may be posted online, e-mailed or sent to ArchitectureBoston, 52 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. Letters may be edited for clarity and length, and must include your name, address, and daytime telephone number. Length should not exceed 300 words.

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Chris Mottalini’s "After You Left, They Took It Apart" [Spring 2010] draws attention to the very real threat to many of Paul Rudolph’s architectural masterpieces. The loss of Rudolph’s work has been noticed beyond the architectural community, with the term "Rudolphed" added to the online Urban Dictionary to describe "any of innumerable mid-century modernist structures facing the wrecking ball."

The Paul Rudolph Foundation was founded to protect, preserve, and promote the architectural legacy of America’s foremost Late Modernist. One of the Foundation’s primary goals is advocating for the preservation of Rudolph’s buildings, and it commissioned Chris Mottalini to photograph these homes only after all efforts to save them had been exhausted.

We believe that preservation is a key part of educating others about Rudolph’s legacy — by perpetuating the direct experience of the architect’s spaces. As Edward Hopper noted, "If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint." The same can be said for the power of Paul Rudolph’s architecture — if its subtlety and spatial complexity could be captured, it would not need to be personally experienced in three dimensions.

It is encouraging to see that Paul Rudolph’s architecture inspires artists like Chris Mottalini to continue his work well beyond the Foundation’s original commission. But without preservation of the buildings he is photographing, the true genius of Rudolph’s mastery of space and light will be lost to future generations. History will not judge us on what we have built, as much as what we refused to destroy.

Nancy Berliner’s comparative perspective ["Not So Different," Spring 2010] addresses the mass clearance of urban fabric in Chinese cities in the light of our country’s past half-century of modernization. The fresh and concrete examples drawn from her personal life in China spotlight some of the planning issues that we indirectly tackle through a curatorial approach derived from the principles of fine-arts conservation. Those principles are flexible and robust, particularly as they were originally encoded in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Structures. They operate as physically conservative and either may or may not be culturally progressive. In any case, their efficacy as positive planning tools is questionable.

It is worth recalling that our country’s historic commissions and their legal powers mostly responded to post-World War II urban renewal and highway expansion when thousands of buildings were demolished. Today, damage to cities and towns may come less from thoughtless demolition than from our undermining historic town centers when we relocate retail, municipal, and county functions to sites that nobody can reach on foot. Anthropologists can characterize the cycle of successful historic preservation as the structural transformation from Trash to Glorious National Heritage, but in our profession more interesting narratives may already be taking shape as young designers pursue combined works with fewer curatorial inhibitions.

Your Re:Use issue [Spring 2010] was very provocative. We do indeed live and operate in a new era. For over five decades, preservation was paramount. It resulted in the restoration of significant landmarks and critical urban fabric, but the rules, ethics, and intentions of preservation have certainly changed. A curatorial approach to fixing a building in a particular place in time lacks relevance in the broader challenges facing the design community today — such as reuse of anonymous midcentury buildings, post-industrial landscapes, and more recent construction that is already obsolete. New guiding principals are emerging — frugality, sustainability, and the conservation of capital — and reuse can effectively achieve these goals. What is most exciting is the potential for reuse projects to fundamentally transform the meaning and purpose of the artifact, ultimately creating a new entity. The hope is that through these acts of re-appropriation we are enriching the environment by creating new meaning, but also by continuing an active dialogue with our cultural legacy.

George Thrush’s interesting article ["After Life: Designing What Comes Next," Spring 2010] concludes by suggesting the sensible notion that not all buildings deserve to be saved. This raises the provocative question of whether all communities, particularly suburban dormitory communities with no supporting transportation infrastructure or other inherent economic advantage of location, deserve to be saved. The first question isn’t really whether a suburban big-box retail store can be repurposed in place as a church or indoor racetrack, but whether any building would make sense in a particular location once gasoline prices reach six, seven, or twelve dollars per gallon, as they inevitably will.

As the article points out, "reuse will succeed because it makes economic sense," but those economics are likely to be wrenching and involve demographic shifts which inevitably require the abandonment of previously developed areas. The same energy-driven economics which will force the realignment of population around transportation infrastructure will also change the equation for material reuse. Rule-of-thumb ratios of labor to material costs per square foot for an urban new construction project are typically 60/40. This will change in favor of material as the embodied energy costs of materials rise. The value of components in existing buildings will therefore become more valuable, whether reused in place or recycled to be used in new buildings elsewhere. That geographically inconvenient big-box retail store in Thrush’s article may be reused after all, relocated piece by piece, which suggests a bright future for the building salvage industry particularly, and of recycling generally. Like the farmer in Amelia Thrall’s essay ["Recycling 2.0/ Materials," Spring 2010], we are all destined to be saving balls of string in the not-toodistant future.

It is clear that sustainability/reuse challenges are quite different in the industries of fashion, architecture, and consumer products, and that some progress is being made in each of these areas. I have followed the work of Natalie Chanin ["Recycling 2.0/Fashion," Spring 2010] after hearing her speak at a materials conference in New York and have been impressed with the creatively detailed clothes she designs out of reused t-shirts as well as the fact that she uses local Alabama women to hand-sew the garments. This is a praiseworthy model for other industries: reuse existing materials and create manufacturing in the US.

Reuse challenges in architecture and product design are a bit more complex. One of the hallmarks of good architecture is the ability to withstand the test of both time and taste. Thoughtful buildings could easily be repurposed if they are built to outlive the short-term mentality of our times. Cradle to Cradle guidelines suggest that for the recycling/reuse of consumer products to be cost effective they must be designed to be disassembled within six seconds. Lisa Ann Pasquale writes in "Recycling 2.0/Manufacturing" that "Matsushita’s Eco Technology Centre… assesses the ease of disassembly and recycling, and reports suggestions back to designers, so new units are easier to process." This makes complete sense; however, high disposal fees were the motivating factor, thereby justifying the cost of the technology center. What it all comes back to is that financial pressure yields results. In an ideal world, the bottom line would be three pronged and would track not only financial profit but environmental and social profit as well.

Jeff Stein captures the essence of Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano’s creativity ["Raw Material," Spring 2010]. I believe that their firm, LOT-EK, conjures up a special magic precisely because they studied architecture in Italy, where history is embedded visually and physically at every corner.

What emerges from this delightful interview is the opportunity for the highest form of architectural and design creativity to shape a physical environment that fits instead of disturbs a precious and precarious evolutionary process. The framework for our thinking has until recently been too narrow to encompass the hard-wired biophilia we unconsciously carry within us. It’s time to let it emerge, to be translated into the building professions and their education, and to free up the same delight in the found object that LOT-EK shows us, this time with the mindset of regenerating value for our planetary home.

Editor’s note: The architect for the project featured in "Old House, New Episode" [The Lurker, Spring 2010] is H. P. Rovinelli Architects of Boston.

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