ArchitectureBoston

Recycling 2.0

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Who can argue with recycling? It’s sustainable, noble even. Yet, for most of us, the act of recycling is exactly like the act of disposing — except the bin colors are different. “The recycling” has come to mean a class of privileged rubbish, and recycling itself has come to represent only half of an idea: diverting trash from landfills. But a deeper understanding of sustainability — and a corresponding shift in our values — is now bringing attention to the other half of the idea: reuse. The design community — architects, industrial designers, fashion designers, landscape architects — has embraced the concept as a catalyst for creativity. The following six essays are reports from the design world illustrating small examples of this very big idea. They demonstrate that new attitudes about reuse influence not only what we recycle but how. Together, they suggest that we may be entering a new era of creative transformation.

Fashion

The re-working of old clothes is hardly a new concept. Museum collections are full of 19th-century dresses that have been reconstructed multiple times to update them according to the latest fashion. Today, with the wealth of consumer goods at our fingertips and cutting-edge designers such as Thakoon at Target, we no longer have to worry about recycling our best garment. Indeed, the notion of “sustainable” seems out of place in a fashion system that is based on planned obsolescence, yet the trend for “new” garments using old materials continues to gain currency. Vogue now has a green issue and the Spring/Summer 2010 New York Fashion Week witnessed concurrent “Green Shows” for the first time, featuring eco-conscious designers.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Highlights from the Green Shows included the work of Susan Cianciolo, a New York City-based multimedia artist and designer who has been at the forefront of the re-purposed clothing movement since the mid-1990s. Cianciolo’s first collection in 1995 used recycled clothing and discarded scraps of fabric from the Chinatown factories, remade into edgy pieces with a deconstructed aesthetic. Cianciolo’s signature frayed hems and evident seaming reflect a deep-rooted commitment to the handmade, as do her do-it-yourself clothing kits. Since the conscious radicalism of her first RUN collection, Cianciolo has remained true to her mission. She still pulls clothing from her grandmother’s closet to screenprint and re-construct, breathing new life into a garment imbued with memories.

The design firm Alabama Chanin also links the present to the past, not only in the use of reclaimed textiles, but also in the reinvigoration of the Southern tradition of quiltmaking. Historically, American quilters used every scrap of fabric they could find, from flour sacks to the unraveled threads from red tobacco pouches. Founder Natalie Chanin continues in this vein, resurrecting the ubiquitous 20th-century garment — the cotton T-shirt — and turning it into fancifully embroidered and appliquéed skirts, dresses, and tops. Although the South’s once-vibrant cotton industry has long passed, the company also now sources cotton yardage that is “grown to sewn in the United States.”

Chanin is one of a number of contemporary designers who have published do-it-yourself books, testimony to the active and growing DIY movement. While some craftspeople feel that websites such as Etsy.com are a threat to the livelihood of academically trained designers, there are many who have embraced it, including the London-based design firm Junky Styling. Founded in 1997 by Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager, the designers transform vintage clothes into dramatic silhouettes. Junky Styling cunningly retains many of the details of the original garment — the closures, the cuffs, the collars — to create fashions that have a streetwise edge to them. With a nod to their English heritage, one can see connections to the doyenne of alternative design, Vivienne Westwood, as well as the punk look of the late 1970s, an earlier incarnation of the DIY aesthetic.

Junky Styling’s obvious use of vintage clothing differs from the design sensibility of Toronto-based Preloved, which finds inspiration in the garment’s textile. Founder Julia Greive started the business as a vintage clothing shop but changed her focus when head designer Peter Friesen came on board. Friesen skillfully deconstructs the original garment and completely transforms it, using sophisticated construction and inventive seaming. Each piece is comprised of two to five used garments that have been purchased in bulk from rag houses. Like Alabama Chanin, the design firm is eco-friendly to the core, hiring only local cutters and sewers. Preloved also exemplifies the future of remade fashion: an affordable, ready-to-wear line offering the customer a one-of-akind garment. It’s a prospect undreamed of without the imaginative reuse of old clothes.

Architecture

Despite strong demand for sustainable products and materials in the United States, the amount of waste produced by the building industry remains staggering. Approximately 100 million tons per year — almost 40 percent of the entire municipal solid-waste stream — come from construction and demolition. While most of this waste could be recovered, material reuse remains limited, particularly at the commercial scale. In fact, LEED credits for material reuse are among the least sought after, with only 5 to 9 percent of all LEED certified projects having successfully received those credits.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

A new tool may help to change that. The Design for Reuse Primer seeks to more clearly understand the obstacles impeding reuse and provide the design and construction industry with knowledge and tools that can help alleviate the barriers. Scheduled for release in mid-2010 as a Web-based resource, the Primer also aims to bridge the communication and knowledge gaps among the various players involved in the reuse process. Thus it is targeted to a broad audience, including designers, contractors, clients, and municipalities. The primary feature of the Primer will be a series of case studies that serve as guides to the reuse process. They will not only showcase the possibilities for reuse but also serve as models that readers can adapt to their own projects.

The Primer was developed by the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture, working with deconstruction and material reuse expert Brad Guy and various government agencies, and supported by a grant from the US Green Building Council. The research team has identified a diverse range of projects varying in size, location, type, budget, scope, and design intent for inclusion as case studies.

In addition to the case studies, the project website will provide a directory of resources connecting people to additional tools that can facilitate material reuse. The website is meant to be interactive, allowing users to contribute knowledge and engage in dialogue and allowing the project to continue to grow as a productive resource. Building codes, perceived environmental health and safety concerns, scheduling and storage constraints, the inertia of familiar methodologies — there are many challenges limiting the role of reuse in the design and construction industries. Yet increasing rates of material reuse can have profound positive environmental implications, affecting everything from energy consumption to landfill waste. The Design for Reuse Primer aims to stimulate the development of new systems and infrastructure to make reuse a more common component of a sustainable building strategy.

Materials

For as long as people have built, we have un-built, too. A thousand years ago, Europeans removed the physical traces of departed conquerors by repurposing Roman bricks for new construction. Viking shipbuilders reused choice timber in new vessels. The United States, colonized to supply its bounty of raw materials to Western Europe, has less experience with the concept of reuse. My father tells of moving to an old farmhouse in northern Vermont in the 1950s and finding in the barn a ball of string measuring three feet in diameter. And next to it, a shoebox that was filled with bits of string and labeled “String Too Short To Save.”

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Today, the practice of reusing building materials is flourishing in a renaissance driven by environmental considerations as powerful as the economic motivations of the past. For Boston Building Resources (the new name, effective this spring, for the Building Materials Resource Center and the Boston Building Materials Co-op) and its Reuse Center, the financial advantages historically associated with salvage are on an equal footing with landfill diversion and embodied energy reduction. Aiming to make a positive community impact through the supply of economically accessible building materials, the Reuse Center offers a membership discount program for individuals with low to moderate incomes and for nonprofit organizations.

It was the oil crisis of the ’70s that compelled architect John Rowse to start sharing his expertise in building science and construction methods with his neighbors. In 1978, he founded the Boston Building Materials Co-op to provide homeowners with both an affordable source of insulation and training in weatherization techniques. Despite the subsequent drop in oil prices and dissipation of environmental awareness, the cooperative continued to thrive. Workshop space was added to enable members to make window repairs without investing in expensive tools, and in 1993 the Reuse Center was launched in two tractor-trailer containers on the site.

Word spread among local contractors and the trailers quickly filled with doors, windows, fixtures, and other materials diverted from landfills. Showrooms contributed new products such as lighting fixtures that were slow to sell. The less-than-ideal conditions of uninsulated trailers in blazing heat did not deter homeowners from doggedly sifting through the growing collection.

Recognizing the growing popularity of building material reuse, the staff eventually replaced their six trailers with the warehouse building that houses the Reuse Center today. In 2008, approximately 800 doors, 400 windows, and 50 kitchen-cabinet sets found new homes via the clean and orderly aisles of the Reuse Center. Boston Building Resources also sold more than 500 composters produced by the Massachusetts EPA and 250 rain barrels constructed of 55-gallon plastic containers that had been previously used for food storage. The unquestionable success of the organization demonstrates a demand for secondhand materials in good condition — and proof that more designers, contractors, and clients are following the advice of director Matthew St. Onge: “Think reuse before new.”

For more information, including donation guidelines, visit: www.bostonbuildingresources.org. For a directory of North American reuse centers, salvage yards, and deconstruction specialists, visit: www.bmra.org.

Furniture

It may take a sociologist, or perhaps a psychologist, to one day explain the cultural puzzlement that is best described as the Modern Revival. Other architectural revivals have allowed a decent interval of at least a century to pass before dusting off pre-used forms and devices. But the current fascination with all things midcentury has barely skipped a generation. It’s the design equivalent of boomers and their kids all knowing the words to “Satisfaction.”

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

This fascination is especially evident in the growing interest in midcentury furniture. Although many of these designs have been in continual production, Dwell magazine (founded in 2000) and the national retailer Design Within Reach (founded in 1999) introduced names such as Breuer, Nelson, and Eames to a new, younger audience, while simultaneously demonstrating how their furniture could fit a 21st-century lifestyle.

They have also given momentum to what might sound like an oxymoron: vintage Modern. Jane Prentiss of Skinner, the venerable Boston auction house, first noticed the trend around 1990, when many of her clients — boomer professionals who were collecting fine arts and antiques — began to buy the original midcentury furniture they remembered from their childhoods for their own teenage and 20-something children. “Because they themselves enjoyed collecting,” she remembers, “they wanted to find something that their children would like, as a way of connecting with them.” Prentiss established Skinner’s 20th Century Design department at that time, which now runs at least two auctions a year (the next is March 27).

Retailer Normand Mainville noticed the interest, too, opening Machine Age in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area in 1991 to sell vintage Modern furniture; a large part of his business then was providing period props for the movie industry. Today, many of his customers are “visual people” — artists, architects, photographers; some are serious collectors, while others are young people just starting out. And competition has blossomed, both locally and nationally (not to mention regular listings on Craigslist).

So why the interest in used furniture? Why would someone buy an old Eames chair when they could buy a nice fresh new one? “Presence,” Mainville answers. His customers appreciate the authenticity and history of the furniture, as well as the sense that these pieces are often unique and more personal.

Cost can be a factor, too. While rare or unusual pieces can command impressive prices (such as the 1973 George Nakashima table that Prentiss recently sold for $213,000), some are less expensive than their new counterparts, and frequently less expensive than the goods sold by mass-market furniture retailers.

Prentiss casts the trend against a larger social context. Much of the furniture fits today’s informal lifestyles; young people especially embrace it as “theirs.” Buyers of all ages are attracted to the quality and craftsmanship, as well as the rarity of some materials such as woods that are no longer available. And, she notes, buying previously owned furniture is inherently sustainable.

As concerns about sustainability permeate our culture and influence our values, it’s hard not to wonder if vintage Modern furniture will serve as gateway antiques, introducing a new generation to a marketplace that currently bemoans the graying of its customer base. Prentiss notes that her department has brought new buyers to Skinner, who often branch out to other interests, most notably Native American and ethnographic objects, vintage jewelry, and American folk art.

Can New England antique furniture be far behind? Designed and handcrafted by local makers using local materials without oil-based synthetics or noxious off-gassing, recycled across generations, and often available at prices far less than any new furniture, these pieces embody the very essence of sustainable values. Buying a New Hampshire Chippendale tiger-maple desk might soon seem like a very modern idea.

Manufacturing

In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart popularized the concept of managed product lifecycles, changing how we think about the things we buy. Cradle to Cradle proposes a future where commerce achieves both economic prosperity and environmental responsibility by closing material loops. So-called “service systems” supply consumers with televisions, computers, and home appliances — by leasing in lieu of selling — and shift the burdens of maintenance and disposal back to the service provider. Goods that might otherwise be discarded are instead “remanufactured” — refurbished, reused, or recycled into new products. While conceptually appealing, in practice these systems sometimes struggle to find their feet.

Photo by BigStockPhoto.com © Alexei Novikov.

Photo by BigStockPhoto.com © Alexei Novikov.

Service systems are common in business-to-business (B2B) transactions where tax deductions on rental fees are often more appealing than acquiring depreciating assets like copiers and printers. Similar systems have struggled in household markets, where end-users value the concept of ownership and aren’t afforded the same tax advantages. Electrolux tried renting washing machines to homeowners in Sweden, charging on a per-wash-cycle basis; the units were reclaimed, refurbished, and resold at the end of the trial. It failed, as household consumers could buy comparable products at similar cost through various credit plans, allowing them to keep the product after the payments ended.

The “car sharing” company, Zipcar, has shown, however, that it is possible to reverse consumer sentiment. It capitalizes on the hassle and expense of owning a car in the city, turning nonownership into a desirable lifestyle choice, making it hip to Zip.

In Japan, where consumers pay high fees to dispose of appliances, manufacturers developed cooperative reclamation and recycling infrastructures in response to tightening legislation. Matsushita’s Eco Technology Centre went beyond recycling, by using the disassembly process as a diagnostic for new products. It assesses the ease of disassembly and recycling, and reports suggestions back to designers, so new units are easier to process.

Caterpillar and Xerox have led industry efforts to “design for loops.” Caterpillar’s highly profitable Remanufacturing Division inspects, cleans, rebuilds, repairs, recycles, and resells end-of-life machinery parts. To reclaim profitable volumes of material, it charges customers a deposit that as much as doubles the price of the part. The financial incentive of returning the product creates a reclamation rate of 93 percent, supporting the division’s $1 billion annual revenue.

Xerox has also been very successful in remanufacturing, claiming certain photocopiers have seven lives, with six diversions from landfill. Its B2B rental of reprographic equipment creates a controlled distribution of products, where Xerox can easily take back a unit at the end of its service contract. The company’s innovation is to design products specifically for disassembly and reuse of parts. Caterpillar and Xerox have both sought external expertise in remanufacturing, but found limited supporting research in business and design schools.

Despite some successes, the state of the service-system approach to commerce shows that, while altruistic and environmental motivations have created some convincing marketing stories, good intentions haven’t had enough leverage to warp the prevailing cradle-to-grave business paradigms into closed loops. The success of existing models has hinged on financial incentives, legal penalties, and the coincidental, idyllic conditions of niche markets to trigger innovative approaches to design and business. Perhaps both industry and government will take lessons from current leaders and propel mainstream business up the learning curve of a new economy. Until then, Cradle to Cradle’s concept of a self-sustaining industrial cycle will remain in its infancy.

Neighborhoods

Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

What do 50 Cent, Bette Midler, Michael Pollan, and Mel King have in common?

A documented love for the transformative power of gardens.

Gardens offer one of the most elemental forms of reuse. Dead leaves and discarded coffee grounds become compost that help wrinkled, dry seeds sprout to shiny green life. Community gardens also recharge neighborhoods, transforming vacant lots and neglected parcels into well-tended places. The City of Boston has 150 community gardens, nearly all of them on properties that were once abandoned.

The practice of reusing vacant urban land for gardens began in the United States during the economic depression of 1893. The mayor of Detroit — a city particularly hard hit by the downfall of the railroad industry — asked owners of vacant land at the city’s periphery to allow the unemployed to grow potatoes. Other cities, including Boston, soon created similar “allotment” gardens of their own. As Sam Bass Warner outlines in To Dwell is To Garden, the presence of urban gardens ebbed and flowed from allotment gardens to schoolyard gardens to the “victory” gardens of WWI and WWII, and all were top-down, government-sponsored forms of philanthropy.

Today’s bottom-up, community-based approach began in the 1970s, “the child of new politics and abandoned city land,” in Warner’s words. The new politics grew from Civil Rights-era neighborhood activism, further fueled by the first Earth Day and then an energy crisis. The vacant land was a byproduct of the midcentury suburban exodus; even Boston’s population shrank by 20 percent in two decades, leaving behind hundreds of empty properties. In 1974, as a state representative, Boston activist Mel King sponsored legislation to allow gardeners to use vacant public land at no cost; in 1976, Mayor Kevin White channeled federal community-development block grant dollars into the creation of 20 gardens. Unimpressed by government management and wanting to be part of the planning process, a handful of individuals from different neighborhoods founded Boston Urban Gardeners (now the Boston Natural Areas Network) — a citizen-based advocacy coalition. Neighborhoods established gardens at an extraordinary rate: by 1982, there were 120 in Boston. In the midst of profound racial tensions and the busing crisis, boarded-up buildings and urban renewal, community gardens offered a place for people of any age or ethnicity to declare a hopeful attitude toward their city through the most humble of means, while providing affordable food and flowers in return. They still do.

What’s new now? Waiting lists to join Boston gardens have tripled in the past few years. There’s a hipness to 21st-century urban gardening. The graying ’70s activists, recent immigrants, and well-intentioned college students have been joined by locavores and Michael Pollan devotees, Martha Stewart/Patti Moreno do-it-yourself types, and Alice Waters wannabes. In the Great Recession of our day, those seeking cheaper alternatives to grocery-store produce have again taken up neighborhood gardening, as have (apparently) multi-millionaire rappers. In 2010, the community garden is once more a source of neighborhood renewal and a dynamic example of true common ground.

What else is different now? Green thumb or not, popular attitudes toward city living have changed. In part due to efforts like community gardens, urban neighborhoods are again a destination.

The Universe In A Garden

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

Photo courtesy Charles Jencks

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Lecture by Charles Jencks (October 7, 2009); Gardens & Spirit Series, co-sponsored by Trinity Church and the Arnold Arboretum

What is a garden? By today’s standards, the notion of a garden seems naïve, vaguely old-fashioned, or at best pleasantly restorative. Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt informs us that the Roman orator Cicero described the cultural landscape of bridges, roads, harbors, and fields as “second nature,” implying a first nature of landscape untouched by humans. Before moving on to gastronomy, writer Michael Pollan gave his wonderful account of fighting entropy in his own suburban Connecticut garden in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991). Sixteenth-century Italy introduced the concept of “third nature” — art incorporated into nature. The notions of second and third nature speak to the balance struck between human order and natural chaos, and the definition of that balance becomes the personal expression of the gardener.

On October 7, architectural historian, writer, and designer Charles Jencks presented his private landscape, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Located at Portrack House near Dumfries in southwest Scotland, the garden began as a creative joint venture with his late wife, Maggie Keswick, on her family estate. Images of the steeply sloped, grass-covered landforms sinuously enclosing lobe-shaped pools of water have become the widely recognized images of the garden, reproduced in coffee-table books of “radical” landscapes since its construction in 1989. To this first project, Jencks has continued to add new vignettes of garden spaces, so now the visitor experiences an episodic journey of garden rooms — based on themes of modern physics, mathematics, and science — rather than a broad, continuous landscape.

Prior to Portrack’s relatively recent step onto the world stage, the most celebrated Scottish garden was Little Sparta, the garden of the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jencks’ “neighbor” 70 kilometers to the north. Referring to Little Sparta, Finlay quipped, “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.” These two private gardens, carved out of the Scottish landscape, offer much to consider about the nature of gardens — their meaning and manufacture, as well as their authors.

Taking Finlay’s definition of the garden as either retreat or attack, it is interesting that for the agoraphobic Finlay the garden was an attack, filled with metaphorical sculpture and pointed, iconographic references to politics, philosophy, anarchy, and landscape history. For Jencks — who found fame through his prolific writing and lecturing on postmodernism in the late 1970s and 1980s — the garden is a retreat from the world stage and perhaps from personal loss. While Finlay’s garden alludes to the past, Jencks’ engages current and future relationships between humanity and nature as expressed in quantum physics, chaos theory, ideas of “strange attractors,” Solitan waves, and the Anthropic Principle of the universe’s genesis.

Like any creative endeavor, these works must be evaluated on their own terms, as landscapes outside of the meanings proposed by their authors. The rural Little Sparta, created within the context of the barren moors south of Edinburgh, is more successful, as it truly engages the full medium of landscape — topography, vegetation, climate, light, and place. Finlay’s sculpture, Nuclear Sail, a replica of a nuclear submarine’s conning tower, plies the “sea” of the grass-covered moor, and achieves a sense of the sublime in both the raw emotional power and scale of the moor, as well as the insidious threat of nuclear annihilation. In other places, tree trunks stand as columns with stone entablatures at their feet, commemorating a pantheon of philosophers. Other inscribed stone blocks stand in for grazing sheep in the pastoral fields of the farmhouse, a 20th-century interpretation of the English landscape garden.

Similar to Little Sparta, Portrack’s garden spaces and elements are an eclectic assembly of objects and ideas, but here are superficial referents to complex scientific theory, breaking from English garden traditions both in content and how they engage landscape as a medium for design. In several places, complex theories are simplistically applied as pattern, as in the case of the Black Hole or Fractal Terraces, or oddly freestanding as sculptural objects, as in the DNA Garden or in the wire tracing of subatomic particle explosion that fords a stream. While well crafted by local tradesmen and gardeners, the primary space is largely derivative of current landscape celebrities Kathryn Gustafson or George Hargreaves in the use of sinuous and geometric landform. The smaller gardens play a diminished, secondary role: they exist only as backdrops for the display of pseudo-scientific objects.

The garden is at its best where it is most allied to the landscape elements of earthwork, water, and woodland enclosure, in the landform garden. As it delves further into scientific symbolism and allegory, both the forms and the references become more simplistic and less successful. Pollan closes his essay on gardening saying, “Nature does tend toward entropy and dissolution, yes, yes, but I can’t help thinking she contains some countervailing tendency, too, some bent toward forms of ever-increasing complexity. Toward us and our creations, I mean. Toward me and this mower and the otherwise inexplicable beauty of a path in a garden.” In regard to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation as a work of landscape, this critic is left wanting more of the real entropy of the garden, and less of the theoretical.

The Design Research Installation

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

Design Research photo by Peter Vanderwarker

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48 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts

It is 1969, and I am finishing a B. Arch. degree at University of California, Berkeley.

When not in the studios, the action is at Sproul Plaza: People’s Park and Cody’s Books are the hot spots. My architecture hero is Christopher Alexander. The fashion on the street runs to Frye boots, tie-dye dresses, and headbands. I have a draft of the Whole Earth Catalogue.

I come back to Boston to visit a friend. I walk into Harvard Square, and there I see Ben Thompson’s glass-walled D/R building. It is sleek, transparent, and colorful. It is like a Corbu building on pilotis, but with more style.

Coming out are women in Marimekko dresses. They look as if they are wearing the architecture. They look impossibly modern. They threaten Berkeley and all it stands for, and this just will not do. In an act of supreme defiance, I take off my Frye boots and go buy some Earth Shoes.

It is 2009. I walk into Harvard Square. And there they are again: D/R, Marimekko, the colors, the people. It’s a marvelous temporary installation, put together by a volunteer team led by Jane Thompson, with the blessings of Bill Poorvu, the building owner. I’m going to go get my Frye boots out of the closet.

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ExCL

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Photo by Ryan McClain

Photo by Ryan McClain

It was what has become a typical Monday since I was laid off. After spending a day trying to keep myself busy, I was more than happy to accompany my girlfriend on a trip to Boston Latin Academy. A kindergarten teacher, she had been given a pass to the ExCL recycling center located in the basement of Latin Academy and wanted my help carrying whatever treasures she found. Sure, it doesn’t sound like the most entertaining way to spend an afternoon. But it was a welcome break from my weekday routine.

Neither of us had ever been to ExCL — formally, Extras for Creative Learning, a nonprofit offering free supplies and materials to members including teachers, families, students, and artists. As the son of two teachers in the Boston Public School system, I’m familiar with educators’ hunger for classroom supplies and the lengths they’re willing to go to for coveted objects like pencils, notebooks, and copy paper. I had heard tales of ExCL, but as an intern-architect, I was never particularly interested in the place. It seemed to have little to do with me or my chosen profession.

After we were buzzed into the building, we made our way down a short flight of stairs to a large open room in the basement that was full of “stuff.” And I mean full. Shelves and bins lined the space, overflowing with items from yellowing lined paper, to rolls of felt, to unused pipettes. Like a combination office-supply warehouse and flea market, a collection of chairs, desks, and filing cabinets sat beside 55-gallon drums filled with rubber bands, scraps of fabric, yarn, and lemon-juice bottles — with boxes of audio cassettes, old educational VHS tapes, and CDs by unknown artists stacked in the far corner.

My initial thought was, “Where did all this stuff come from — and who’s going to use it?”

We had barely finished checking in before my girlfriend disappeared, a teacher-turned-treasure hunter abandoning me for her quest. Left to wander on my own, I was busy looking through a pile of 12″ records, hoping for a rare Sun Ra or Thelonious Monk, when a nearby shelf caught my attention. It held a pile of what I realized were manufacturers’ glazing samples — something you see all the time in an architecture office, but that I never expected to find in the basement of a Boston public school. I walked over to get a better look.

This is when things got a little weird.

Picking up the top sample, I noticed the label, which bore the name of my previous employer — the same employer who had created this window of free time for me on Monday afternoons.

Looking over the rest of the glass, I discovered that nearly all the samples had come from that same firm. I searched for more. Nearby, I found stone and tile squares, strips of wood flooring, and upholstery samples. All together, this collection would have made a respectable library for a small office.

I went looking for my girlfriend — only to find her making a pile of three-ring binders, nearly all of which came from some part of the construction industry. The spines were still labeled with the names of elevator manufacturers, construction firms, and all types of materials suppliers.

I looked back at the samples and felt an odd affinity with these inanimate objects — we were all in that basement for the same reason, all casualties of the recession. I was there because my current state of underemployment allowed me to go on scavenger hunts for recycled goods at four in the afternoon. These samples were there because firms found themselves with a rare opportunity: enough free time to clean out and organize their libraries.

As we left, we passed a sign saying, “Staff only beyond this point.” I couldn’t help but wonder if they were making room for more offerings from the design industry. Maybe I’ll suggest that they build a holding-pen for discarded junior designers and recent grads: “Young design professionals, for your creative repurposing! (Limit 2 per customer).”

Site Work

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Websites of note

Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

Whether you’re trying to unload construction materials, electronics, extra food or office equipment, here’s a handy list of links to send you in the right direction. Now you really have no excuse.

Building Materials Reuse Association

Ever wonder how to take apart a building so that the materials can be reused? This nonprofit educational and research organization will help.

Nike ReUse a Shoe

A nifty video explains how your old running shoes might be ground up to become the next basketball court, tennis court, or running track. Basketball and tennis courts take 2,500 pairs; a running track eats a whopping 75,000.

IKEA Hacker

And to think it’s often called “disposable” furniture… This brilliant blog features oodles of clever ways to repurpose all that stuff with the funny Swedish names into even more fabulous furniture.

How to Reuse Paper Rolls

Curl your hair, extend your vacuum cleaner hose, keep your pants crease-free, entertain your hamsters — and more! Who knew a paper tube could be so useful?

The Rural Studio

Founded in 1994 by the late Sam Mockbee, this Auburn University program demonstrates how simple, even unlikely, materials can be reconstructed into beautiful structures, such as the “Windshield Chapel” and the “Carpet House.”

Freecycle

It’s like eBay or Craigslist, but free! PayPal is so overrated.

The Stone Wall Initiative

Some things should not be reused, and New England’s stone walls are among them. Threatened by increasing theft, stone walls are unique to our regional landscape. Save our walls!

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Covering the Issues

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Periodical Roundup

Business Week cover

Fasten your seat belts… The housing crisis may be improving, but big problems in the commercial real-estate industry still loom, according to a BusinessWeek cover story (November 16, 2009). The statistics are staggering. Mara Der Jovanesian and Dean Foust report that “between now and 2012, more than $1.4 trillion worth of commercial real-estate loans will come due,” while perhaps as many as three-quarters of the loans made during the height of the bubble will face trouble refinancing. Thirty US cities now have at least $1 billion in “troubled” commercial loans, up from only one a year ago. Jovanesian and Foust predict the market won’t fully recover for at least another decade.

Fast Company cover

It’s a reach… Jeff Chu sends up a scathing account of “The Rise and Fall of Design Within Reach” (Fast Company, December 2009). Founded in the Time Before Dwell, Design Within Reach helped make Eames a household name via an online store and glossy catalogue that seemed to teach us about good design as much as it sold us furniture. Oh, life was so easy then. Fast-forward through an enormous retail-store expansion, multiple management transitions, an economic crash, and some eye-poppingly questionable DWR-sponsored knockoffs of signature design pieces (lawsuits included), and the glossy sheen is long gone.

The Atlantic cover

Home, sweet home… The nation’s most innovative experiment in housing design and urban life is happening in New Orleans, suggests Wayne Curtis in “Houses of the Future” (The Atlantic, November 2009). Independent developers have stepped into the void left by federal government inaction. Curtis profiles five programs producing houses that exemplify both utopian thinking and real-world innovation in formal design, environmental performance, financing, community participation, and self-construction. Though Andres Duany and the Tulane School of Architecture play pivotal roles, Curtis makes a strong case for the projects sponsored by Brad Pitt as the most ambitious and inventive of the bunch. And in the end, New Orleans offers a fascinating hybrid: the projects getting built are neither completely grassroots nor Robert Moses-style planning, and some of the most profound sustainable lessons are being learned from the old, pre-storm architecture.

The New York Review cover

Seventh-inning stretch… Ostensibly, art critic Michael Kimmelman has written a review of Dana Brand’s The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan for The New York Review of Books (November 19, 2009). But the delightful reality is that Kimmelman has actually written a lively, passionate, personal essay on the architecture of the new New York ballparks as only a lifelong fan can (the new Yankee stadium is “a big, pompous stage”). The lulls in the game — which provide time to reflect on the big questions of life, such as what the pitcher’s next move might be — have been replaced by forced entertainment, fancy food in $1,000 seats, and shopping opportunities. Amid all the expensive noise of conspicuous consumption, what does this new generation of ballparks miss? Community. Shea’s immense concrete donut never looked so good.

Green Lite… Are LEED-rated buildings measuring up to their energy-performing promises? Not entirely, according to two new reports that Jennie Rothenberg Gritz discusses in “The Green Façade” (The Atlantic, online “Dispatch,” November 24, 2009). In one fall 2009 report, GreenerBuildings.com editor and LEED founder Rob Watson states that, despite good performance in other areas, LEED buildings are not producing energy savings as expected. Chicago’s USGBC chapter issued a similar report last fall, stating that LEED-certified buildings in Illinois were performing only 5 percent better than their non-LEED cousins, less than 30 percent of LEED-certified projects met Energy Star standards, and a full 75 percent of energy-modeled buildings fell short of predictions. Why? The problems lie in the mix-and-match point system, and the lack of incentives to measure or improve daily energy performance. With new LEED certification guidelines for operation and management of existing buildings, change may be coming.

Books: more thoughts on re:use

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

Book covers

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White on White: Churches of Rural New England Photographs, by Steve Rosenthal; essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg; afterword by Robert Campbell FAIA (The Monacelli Press, 2009)

A distinguished architectural photographer, Steve Rosenthal is known to many for his crisp images of New England’s important new buildings, including Kallmann and McKinnell’s Boston City Hall, Cobb’s Hancock Tower, and Kahn’s Exeter Library. Less known is his longtime, quiet obsession: making black-and-white photographs of New England churches.

These striking images have been bound together in large-format plates in a beautiful book. A foreword by Verlyn Klinkenborg, who is on the editorial board at The New York Times, and an afterword by Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell FAIA provide thoughtful context to view these photographs as art.

Any art form has its limitations, of course. The sonnet form restricts a poem with specific meter and a fixed number of feet and lines. When beauty emerges from a sonnet, it seems all the more astonishing because of the apparent restrictions of the form. However, the tension between the meaning and the form are inextricably connected.

Photography, and particularly black-and-white photography, has many limitations analogous to the limitations of the sonnet form. The photographer’s view of the world is already limited by a monocular lens, but the black-and-white photographer is further limited by the absence of color. Surely color would give a greater scope for conveying meaning?

But in the hands of an artist such as Steve Rosenthal, the black-and-white format intensifies the meaning. The images in this book are astonishing. Their subjects are the iconic white, 18th- and 19th-century structures that were once the center of community life in the region and still define the New England landscape today. Rosenthal gives them an epic stature. Through the sensitivity of his eye and the clarity of his compositions, these frail wooden barns — indeed they were built mostly for farmers — become heroic, timeless architecture.

In these photographs, the reader will find a full education in architecture. Here are essays on siting, context, and urbanism. Here are essays on the efficiency of form as it relates to function, on the use of daylight and sun, and on the role of structure. These photographs are essays in style, and how style carries meaning.

And further, these photographs are essays in the human spirit. Through Rosenthal’s lens, we feel — and this is no exaggeration — the human will to immortality and the reach for meaning across time. The builders of these New England treasures were housewrights and carpenters, whose knowledge of history and the larger world seems hopelessly limited when compared to our age of plane travel and the Internet.

But with the availability of pattern books, the builders of these essential New England buildings were able to reuse the forms of ancient temples and medieval cathedrals. Timeless forms were made new. Steve Rosenthal’s haunting, dreamlike, beautiful photographs will forever change our sense of these country churches.

Build-On: Converted Architecture and Transformed Buildings, edited by Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (Gestalten, 2009)

The possibility of transformation is one of the great promises of working with existing buildings. This is an elusive goal; to begin with something old, introduce a new ingredient, and end with the unexpected — which is somehow both familiar and new — requires both deference and assertion. Several examples of this alchemy appear in the projects illustrated in Build-On. Unfortunately, the book’s enthusiasm is diluted somewhat by the sheer number of examples cited.

With lush color photographs and short descriptive essays, the book features over 85 projects from around the world (mostly Western Europe), including many that may not be widely recognized in the US. Although no table of contents is provided (the projects are indexed by architect at the end of the book), the book is divided into three themed chapters. In the first, “Add-on,” new spaces are added or superimposed onto existing structures. In “Inside-Out,” exteriors remain largely intact, while interiors are fundamentally altered. “Change Clothes,” the most interesting, looks at works that attempt to change the face of the existing structure. Although this last implies a focus on appearance, it features the repurposing of several unused industrial sites. Other themes reappear periodically, such as revealing the layers of time (the Ljubljana City Museum) or the multiplicity of uses over the life of a structure (the National Sculpture Museum in Valladolid). Some simply strive to preserve the relevance of a rare building type (the Cascais Music Conservatory). All share a forward-looking embrace of contemporary sensibilities.

The editors reference the work of Marcel Duchamp and the “as-found” strategy of architects Alison and Peter Smithson as progenitors for a new way of thinking about the built environment. While the editors align the theme of architectural reuse with these strategies, which challenged notions of conventional perception and the dogmatic excesses of the Modernism of their day, the book also shines a welcome light on what are in fact older, more balanced ways of thinking about architecture. The timing of the book is interesting as we grapple with the excesses of our own time. Renovation and addition are by their very nature sustainable acts that require direct understanding of the artifact and its technology and demand a deeper, more intimate engagement with an existing context. I wish Build-On told more of the story of this engagement. The most valuable lessons from these projects are often the dead ends, puzzles solved, and trials overcome. The projects presented deserve our attention, but the telling would benefit greatly from revealing the process, the thinking, and the decision-making that shaped the outcome of each one. The number of compelling examples cited is argument enough to make the case that there is more to say on this topic. At the very least, Build-On can light the path for future study by young designers who are beginning their search today.

In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, by Lauren Weber (Little, Brown & Company, 2009)

Lauren Weber’s description of her penny-pinching dad sounds like my father, and maybe yours, too: they set the thermostat to “chilly” and tell their kids to wear sweaters. But Weber’s dad takes thrift further. He uses teabags 12 times and once attempted to ration his family’s toiletpaper (he failed in this endeavor).

After uncovering her own frugality’s roots, Weber addresses the American relationship with thrift. She begins with the etymology of the word “cheap,” and proceeds through early American history to the present. The first few chapters are dry, as if Weber were producing the world’s longest social-studies report, but her book is important and ultimately fascinating.

The American relationship with money is dizzying. Early Puritans exhorted thrift, but became wealthy by plundering this continent’s abundance. Benjamin Franklin linked parsimony with patriotism; post-Revolutionary patriots acquired goods greedily. Saving has been a virtue during every war but the most recent; spending is encouraged afterward. The speed with which “We the People” ricochet between frugality and indulgence is akin to proclamations about coffee or wine: Good for you! Bad for you! Good! No, bad!

Despite this ping-ponging, frugality was considered a virtue until after World War II, when Americans were enlisted in a new war: fighting recession. Citizens were urged to buy homes, cars, washing machines — setting the stage for the post-9/11 cry, “Go shopping. Show you’re not afraid.”

Weber proffers ideas and resources for thrifty living. From the online network Freecycle to clothing swaps, Americans are learning to trade and reuse, rather than discard. “Freegans” opt out of the economic system altogether: mostly unemployed, they dumpster-dive for food and cultivate tradable skills like carpentry and computer repair.

The author casts a wide net, drawing in American history, the psychology of cheapness, its environmental impact, moral connotations, and its global economic effects. While her scope makes the book a bit messy, she manages a synthesis of disparate subjects — a sort of unified field theory of cheapness.

As Weber explains, the American lust for consumer goods burns holes in our pockets and warms the globe. And the connection between our sense of material entitlement, our personal financial woes, and the national and global economic crises is frightening. The average American savings rate is at an all-time low of zero. High savings rates support business investments; investments fuel growth. We spend more than we save, so America makes up the difference by borrowing from thriftier countries: China. We’re in hock. Khrushchev once bellowed to Westerners, “We will bury you!” China may soon declare, “We own you!”

In Cheap We Trust is thorough and provocative. It will force readers to take a second look at spending and saving — at our needs, our wants, and the world we live in together.

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Old House, New Episode

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Photo by Joan Wickersham

Photo by Joan Wickersham

The event: Filming an episode of This Old House, the Emmy-winning PBS show, now in its 30th season.

The project: A budget-sensitive set of improvements to a 1915 Dutch Colonial in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. The owners are Gillian Pierce, an assistant professor of rhetoric at Boston University, and her husband, fiction writer and essayist Bill Pierce, who is also senior editor of AGNI magazine.

Today’s plan: To film the laying of a new patio outside the kitchen door, and the installation of wood flooring in the new upstairs study and library.

8:00 Bill and Gillian and their son Liam eat pancakes in the dining room, an oasis in the midst of renovation-gutted limbo. Bill’s parents have come from Pennsylvania to help with the patio in today’s episode.

8:10 Liam leaves for school. “You’re going to have a patio when you come home, buddy,” his grandfather says, “and you don’t even need to do any work.”

8:27 Outside, the landscaping crew lines up six-foot granite slabs to edge the patio. Producer Deborah Hood talks to director David Vos and cameraman Dino D’Onofrio about keeping the painters, on ladders painting second-floor window trim, out of the patio shot. “For continuity. Because painting was Show 11 and this is Show 12.”

8:45 A truck shows up to deliver poplar for door casings. Two men get out and begin unloading — but the crew is ready to film the opening shot in the driveway. “So the truck’s got to get out of here,” Deborah says.

8:50 The truck is gone. David has been planning the shot with program host Kevin O’Connor and production coordinator Heath Racela. “OK, so Kevin, run up Pork Chop Hill; Dino, pan the hole; and Heath, it looks like a bus stop with everybody just hanging around — give ’em all something to do. OK —” he cues Kevin “— ‘Here at this Old House’ —” Kevin continues, running up the hill, “— we are down to the last six weeks of the renovation of our little Dutch Colonial.” Meanwhile, David watches Dino’s camerawork on a monitor, muttering, “Shot of the gambrel.”

8:52 David to Kevin: “Go again.” And, to Dino, “It’s all about the gable.”

8:53 Dino pans down the gambrel roof and over to a large hole at the head of the driveway. Kevin: “We’d pulled up the blacktop, but then the homeowners threw us a curveball. They didn’t know if there was money for a new garage, but then decided there was, so last week we tore down the old one —” (David muttering to Dino, “Get the hole, the hole, it’s all about the hole.”) “— and we want to deal with that without disrupting the work that’s already been done to prepare for the patio.”

9:08 David and landscape contractor Roger Cook run through the next shot with Kevin. David: “Say that we wanted to grade away from the house, for drainage; but the land slopes up, so we graded sideways. And we’re using these concrete pavers that look like brick, but they’re cheaper, more uniform, easier to install. And they’ve got these chamfered edges — why?” “No trip factor,” Roger explains. “And the snow shovel rides right over.” “Right. And make the point that they’re modular, easy to work with, and they come in a blend of colors, so they look natural.” Meanwhile another member of the crew sweeps the new mahogany back stoop, cleaning it up for the shot.

9:26 “Action, please.” Kevin kneels at the back step. Dino, backing with the camera but mindful of the steep drop just behind him, says, “I can’t get world enough — I mean, wide enough to —” “Isn’t that ‘To his Coy Mistress’?” David asks Bill, who is standing nearby. “‘Had we but world enough, and time,’” Bill quotes. David smiles. “Yep, that’s the general production lament.”

9:28 Between takes, noise of men sawing boards to frame the new garage foundation.

10:06 Roger, Kevin, and Bill rehearse measuring the depth of a screed rail in the bed of sand that will underlie the patio; it must be precisely 2″ below grade. “Kevin, give me a scoop of sand,” Roger says. Kevin mimes the action but won’t actually pour the sand until they’re shooting.

10:25 Screed rails laid, the crew begins dumping wheelbarrows full of sand, which Bill rakes smooth. Dino moves sideways, changing his vantage point; onlookers scramble to get out of the shot. David murmurs to Dino, “Detail, man, detail.” Then: “Stop. Whose phone is that?” No one confesses.

10:31 They start filming and the phone rings again. It belongs to one of the painters. David goes over to the ladder. “Can you stop that, please?”

10:50 David: “OK, now Roger, you want to talk about how it’s important not to have voids. If you have voids you’ll have dips — no, don’t say ‘dips’, say ‘settling’ — and then your property values will go to hell.” Roger rehearses in his animated on-camera voice, “Now the reason I’m so picky about these little voids is…”

10:52 Filming again. In his on-camera voice, Bill asks Roger, “What about voids?” David interrupts. “No, Bill, don’t lead the witness.”

11:01 David: “OK, now let’s get the whole chorus together.” A procession forms: Bill, Bill’s parents, a family friend, all carrying pavers. David: “Oh, that was sad. That was like a dirge. An open-casket patio laying. Roger, talk about grabbing different colors to mix up the shades. And Bill, talk about who you’ve indentured here to help you.”

11:04 As filming continues on the patio, work is happening off-camera: guys working on garage foundation footings, guys sawing trim, guys painting.

11:15 David talks to Dino and Roger about a close-up. “The anatomy of a paver. I want to learn about chamfering.”

11:20 David: “Take it again. Roger, you said ‘uniform spaces between the patio,’ when you meant ‘uniform spaces between pavers’.”

11:22 David: “Now we’re going to talk about laying the pavers. And let’s have a student do this, not a master.” He nods at Bill’s mother, Peggy, who steps into the shot and crouches, holding a paver.

11:23 On camera, Roger says it’s important to drop each paver in from above, rather than dragging it through the sand. Peggy drops in a paver. “Stop,” David says. “Let’s start with Peggy dropping it in — work first, then talk.”

11:58 Filming of a teaser, to be used in the middle of the episode. Roger: “And later on, we’re going to be laying a new patio in the backyard.” David: “Smile even more, Roger.”

12:06 David, Roger, Dino, and the Pierces’ friend Neil plan out a sequence of cutting some pavers in half, using a guillotine splitter, to fill in the periodic gaps in the herringbone paving pattern. With the camera rolling, Roger and Neil crouch by the guillotine. “Neil, I need you to do something for me. We’re going to cut some pavers in half —” David: “Stop. You’re repeating yourself — you’ve already said we’re going to cut them in half.” Roger resumes. “What I need you to do for me, Neil, is split some pavers. The pavers measure eight inches, so we’re going to mark them here at four inches.”

12:12 The pavers are split, the guillotine scene is shot. David: “Now let’s satisfy ourselves. Let’s plunk ’em in.”

12:13 Roger, Neil, and the Pierces practice plunking the half-pavers in, but then have to pry them out again for filming.

12:30 In the driveway, a production assistant talks with master carpenter Norm Abram, who will appear in the afternoon’s indoor flooring sequence. They discuss possible stain colors for the front door of this season’s other This Old House project, a house in Roxbury. Bill’s parents, who are big fans of Norm’s (Bill Senior is an avid do-ityourselfer) come over to introduce themselves and have a photo taken.

1:20 After lunch, the rest of the pavers are laid. Roger, on camera: “So what do you think, Bill?” Bill: “I think it’s time for a chair and a beer.”

1:30 David, to Kevin: “OK, now you’re going to come in and say —” “‘Wow. Look at that. You guys sure made short work of that.’” “Exactly.”

1:50 The landscaping crew dumps bags of polymeric sand on the patio surface, while Roger explains to David what the sand is for: it will keep the pavers from shifting, and keep down weeds.

1:58 On camera, Roger explains that the polymers will harden when wet, binding the pavers together.

2:06 Gillian stands ready to operate the power compactor, which will firmly pack the sand between the pavers. Roger, on camera: “Now what we’re going to do, using this power compactor —” David: “No — talk about what we’re going to do first, then about what we’re going to use to do it.”

2:25 Roger blows away excess sand with an air gun. The next step is to wet it. Roger: “We don’t have a nozzle for the hose?” Another landscaper answers, “Nope, we’re going to do the homeowner thumb-spray.”

2:40 The Pierces stand with Kevin and Roger on the wet patio, hosing, smiling, and filming the episode sign-off. Roger: “That’s it, Bill, I just want you to dampen that polymeric sand…”

2:41 They do several more takes, hosing, smiling, signing off. David asks them to try it one more time. “Those are the parts, guys. Now do it like you love it.”

3/10/10 Editor’s note: The architect for this project is H. P. Rovinelli Architects of Boston.

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Drawing Toward Home: Designs for Domestic Architecture from Historic New England

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

Unidentified suburban residence

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Boston University Art Gallery, November 18, 2009–January 17, 2010

National Building Museum, Washington, DC, February 13, 2010–August 15, 2010

A good architectural drawing creates what landscape painters call a moment. It illustrates something that in an instant resonates within us. With paintings, it is usually about a time or place that is iconic, as if we’ve known the place all along or were there at some point in our lives. As the drawings in this exhibition demonstrate, a good architectural drawing has that same capacity.

Beyond whatever artful quality they have, architectural drawings also require a certain correctness or scale to be useful. Whether a plan, an elevation, or a detail, all of the drawings in this exhibition are practical representations of an idea that was meant to be built. They had to accurately portray the whole house or a portion of it to clients or contractors and, by itself, that is often enough. But what is so significant here, and what elevates these drawings beyond mere representation, is their facility to give us the same moment that a good painting can give us.

Three drawings demonstrate the range of this show: one by Peabody and Stearns of a house in Newton (1875), one by Halfdon Hanson of a house in Gloucester (circa 1920), and another by Henry Hoover of a house in Lincoln (1968). Separated by only a few miles in Massachusetts but spread over almost a century in time, they couldn’t be more different stylistically. Yet all the drawings seem familiar and comfortable, as if one could move right in and occupy the house. Though the drawings in this exhibition span three centuries of domestic American architecture, that sense, or moment, is evident in all of them.

Top image: Unidentified suburban residence, 1930s, David J. Abrahams, architect. Courtesy Historic New England.

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Second Life

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Zombies.

(Now that I have your attention, we’ll get back to the undead in a moment.)

Those who are the children of Depression-era babies probably grew up with the mantra “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” — much as kids now are taught the somewhat more plodding “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” The transmission of cultural values, particularly those encouraging restraint of any sort, is a difficult business. Just ask the US government: from Prohibition to “Just Say No” to abstinence-only programs, its efforts to encourage the citizenry to curb their enthusiasms have been abysmal failures, if not downright laughable. Let’s face it — the boomers who grew up with the “use it up” ditty haven’t been models of frugal behavior.

Even so, frugality is suddenly the virtue of the moment, thanks to the Great Recession. In fact, years from now, we may actually give thanks to the Great Recession for turbocharging the engine of the sustainability movement at the precise moment when green values collided with rampant consumerism, yielding such silliness as LEED-certified McMansions and threatening to undermine the movement’s urgency with rampant cynicism over green marketing. The recession has made us realize that “reuse” has little meaning unless it is considered in the context of “use,” and neither has any meaning without considering the larger issue of our relationship with stuff.

These are among the most important cultural issues of our time, which means that those who are in creative fields have a job to do. Just as artists and designers colonize rundown urban areas and make them hip, so do they serve as tastemakers in our cultural terrain. They are the cool kids. And the cool kids, many of whom were among the first to embrace sustainability, are increasingly thinking about reuse.

Back to zombies. At this writing, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”) is ranked 237 at Amazon and has been on The New York Times trade paperback bestseller list for 39 weeks. It’s a mash-up, reusing and combining existing material to create something new — which also happens to be wildly popular and wildly lucrative. At this writing also, Boston is abuzz over The Donkey Show and Sleep No More — the inventive productions at American Repertory Theater based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. They are evidence of a new openness in the creative world toward repurposing and remixing that leads to work that is transformative — a completely new genre and experience.

Today’s attitudes toward reuse have shed the stern moralism of the “use it up” dogma and the groupthink numbness of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” chant. Reuse has a new edginess to it: witness the international attention to Single Speed Design’s “Big Dig” house, a wonderful residence in Lexington, Massachusetts constructed of materials salvaged from Boston’s Central Artery project. Even preservation architecture — long considered the stodgy corner of the profession — has a new hipness, as practitioners take on midcentury masterpieces and academics look afresh at preservation theory, with journals such as Future Anterior (Columbia) and Int/ARInterventions/Adaptive Reuse (RISD). The field has already been re-energized by its recent alignment with sustainability (“the greenest building is the one that is already built”); new appreciation of the invention and innovation that are possible with reuse will undoubtedly push it further.

“Reuse” has little meaning unless it is considered in the context of “use,” and neither has any meaning without considering the larger issue of our relationship with stuff.

Reuse, repurpose, reimagine, remix, mash-up, hack — a growing vocabulary describes a trend that is not just about the moral high ground. It’s about the sheer pleasure and frequent beauty in creating something new. And, oh yes, doing good.

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