Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Seasonal Lesson

We learned last night the true nature of Semmes Avenue – once the heart of our neighborhood, now just a corridor slicing through it.

It’s Christmas time, so we had a group of children and parents going caroling – not a radical, new subversive transgression; something that probably has happened in our neighborhood every year since it was built.  But – we started at a house on the south side of “the Avenue” and were going to sing at several houses on the north side as well.

Crossing the street with children is rough.  Crossing with about 20 children, from 2 to 10 is a nightmare.

We could only make half the trip at a time – to the thin median strip (one child had to be quickly yanked by the hood to keep from stepping over.

We got two cars to stop to let us make the second half of the journey – but a driver in the left lane must have irritated by the brief pause, rolled into the right lane and ploughed into the back of one of the stopped cars.  (Thankfully that car had good brakes or something, did not roll forward into the kids.)

Neither of the drivers was injured fortunately, and several neighbors ran out to help.

It was pointed out that there was no crosswalk there (there is not one for blocks and blocks and blocks across Semmes) and that drivers don’t expect to slow down, and cars have the right of way.  Well, that’s true. 

But that needs to change.

Semmes Avenue used to be the heart of the neighborhoods along it.  Woodland Heights was built hand in hand with a trolley line linking it to downtown (transit oriented development version 1.)  There were shops and businesses lining the street, and people from both sides met in the middle to ride the trolley (I believe that is the origin of the median strip, and of the concrete power poles down the middle.)

Now the two sides seem remote, like different neighborhoods. 

Our neighborhoods need their heart back.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Waiting for the bus.

2013 03 20 12th & Main by va011101
2013 03 20 12th & Main, a photo by va011101 on Flickr.

Although the 5:30 bus never came, waiting for the 6:00 bus gave me enough time to sketch this.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Stella's - Well Peopled

Went to Stella's last night for a wonderful dinner with some friends.  The food was outstanding; when you go try the kreatopita - seasoned beef with bechamel sauce wrapped in filo dough.  Our party declared the crab cakes the best in the city.

But what strikes me about Stella's is that it is as much about the communal act of sharing food as it is about the flavor (which is all there nonetheless.)

The light wood panelling and furniture, and well done lighting give the place a warm glow that sets a convivial mood.  There are a variety of seating arrangements - back to back with your neighbors, side by side, and a beautiful marble topped community table which occupies the center of the space, and has been full each time I've visited.  We were seated at the one 'private; booth - toward the back with a low, perforated screen that gives a sense of intamacy without cutting you off from the generall hubbub.

Its been a very lively place at each visit.  Last night there was not an open table until we were leaving around after a leisurely meal.  The general noise of conversation creates an atmosphere of community, but you are still able to hear your own party, even at the side-to-side tables along the front (I have not yet sat at the community table, but people were talking, not sitting in overpowered silence.)

The portions are about sharing, too.  Any of the individual entrees is plenty to share family style (especially the tasty Pastichiatho - Greek spaghetti.)  And the Meze or small plates are not that small and well worth sticking to.  If you can't think of something to talk about - the food will definitely spark conversation.

I like to think of building as a fundemental human act (might be a personal bias;) but Stella's makes me question that assumption.  The sharing of food together may in fact be the foundation of cities.  The sense of community that act fosters maybe compels people to make a place that it can happen again. 

Stella's is a worthy example of such a place. 

Friday, May 04, 2012

Sketch Fridays - May 2012

From the courtyard of the Richmond History Center -

Isolde Uecker

John Spain

Glenn Suttenfield
Andrew Moore

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How to Climb a [Church] Hill, Postscript

Back in August of last year, I made some observations on a significant utility project at Taylor's Park Hill, a City-owned park below Richmond Hill. During construction, the contractor demolished a concrete stairway of monumental proportions, spanning the entire slope. I lamented that the reconstruction appeared to be just that - missing any opportunity for an enhancement of the park. And, unfortunately, I was right. 

The new stair simply leads up in all of its glute-busting glory, with minimal ties to the terraces and without any apparent destination.

It is particularly disappointing that the path to the overlook at the end of East Grace remains without improvement - an overgrown dirt path.

One quirk of the new stair that I do not recall from the original is a ridiculously short "landing" in one of the runs.

Public stairs and paths are an important part of the urban experience and should be subject to care. Sadly, the stairs in this park remains a missed opportunity.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Steven Holl Sneak Peek

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the C3 Breakfast Club event where Dean Joe Seipel of VCU's School of the Arts presented the schematic design for the new Institute for Contemporary Arts. The design is by Steven Holl and has been the subject of great anticipation by the Richmond design community, particularly since Richmond has few works of contemporary architecture by nationally-known, currently practicing architects. This particular project also seems destined to be a flashpoint for the perennial "modern versus traditional" and "what does contextual design mean" debates.

Because of its high profile and presumably because of anticipated controversy, VCU is carefully controlling the release of images of the new project, hiring a national PR firm to manage the process towards a spring roll out. Although Joe advanced the slides quickly, I did manage to make a few sketches of the schematic design. [I was briefly tempted to swipe the copy of the schematic design booklet that was available for viewing at the event, but decided it would be too much.]

Anyway, this is a sketch of the plan showing the corner of Belvidere and Broad. The basic mass of the building is a tall volume on the corner with lower bars extending to the west, splaying out to form a sheltered courtyard. The foreground of the tall volume on the corner is planned as a small plaza. The major materials are weathered zinc and glass, which appears to be channel glass in some areas.

This is a perspective sketch of the building from the corner.

What do you think?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Can an Architect Be a Humanist?

In 1984, author and playwright Robertson Davies gave the David Coit Gilman Lecture to an audience largely consisting of doctors and medical students at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution. Davies entitled the lecture "Can a Doctor Be a Humanist?," raising questions about the nature of the medical profession and the potential tension between the doctor's allegiance to largely impersonal medical science, on the one hand, and the doctor's role as healer with a magical, personal touch, on the other. The text of this lecture can be found in a collection of Davies' work published posthumously.

The Caduceus, the snake-entwined staff that symbolizes medical practice, is invoked by Davies as the illustration of this tension, with the right-hand snake being Knowledge and the opposing left-hand snake, Wisdom. To the doctor, Knowledge is the outwardly obtained and applied science, the results of laboratory experimentation, and clinical studies of large numbers patients. In opposition resides Wisdom, an introverted element that looks "not at the disease, but at the bearer of the disease [italics mine]," and comes from within. It is Wisdom that establishes the link between patient and healer, allowing the patient and her condition to "speak" and for the healer to listen. For the purposes of his lecture, Davies renamed the snakes of the caduceus as Science and Humanism and posed the title question to point out that the medical profession seems to be increasingly and overwhelmingly concerned with science.

Davies goes on to describe something he calls "doctor psychology," characterizing doctors as loners and naturally suspicious of cooperative efforts. Doctors are Heroes with a drive to conquer and rule without interference, reinforced by the natural tendency of the patient to view the physician as a god, with power over life and death. This is where Wisdom, or Humanism, has the potential to make a difference - allowing the patient and the true nature of things to speak. Sometime the diagnosis has little relationship to the actual emergent illness and is linked to underlying issues. Davies cites a personal example of a wise doctor treating his severe cold symptoms with probing questions into the stresses within Davies' life, ultimately revealing an underlying issue related to his work. Wisdom determines the difference between "a first-rate healer and a capable technician."

This leads me to the question the architect. I believe that there is an "architect psychology" that, despite the pervasive invocation of "collaboration" within the profession, is based on a similar kind of hero archetype. The architect, armed with specialized knowledge, is all too often engaged in the practice of "conquer and rule," with a patronizing approach towards all who might "interfere." Although there is no doubt that lifelong design education and experience provide unique perspectives, are architects viewing the world through a lens with a balanced filter - with Knowledge and Wisdom held appropriately tensioned?

The term "humanism" is often associated with the rejection of theistic religion and the supernatural in exchange for a secular worldview that celebrates human achievement. Despite the historical precedent for this association, Davies is careful to direct his usage of the term to the broader meaning, that of "an ethical system that centers on humans ans their values, needs, interests, abilities, dignity and freedom." For the architect, being a humanist in this sense does not mean the Howard Roark model of architect-as-hero or any other kind of Randian elevation of the individual to god-like status. If anything is to be elevated, it is to be the values and spirit of the people that are touched by the architect's work. And these qualities are accessible only through listening and observing through the lens of Wisdom.

Like the diagnostician's approach to a patient, the architect has an obligation to gather the elements that influence a design. Perhaps the architect can cultivate an approach that looks beyond the obvious and reveals the underlying issues, tapping into the humanity of those served, and thereby avoiding the "heroic" treatment of symptoms.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Re-roofing in Haiti - House #2

Continuing the series on my recent trip to Haiti...

At the same time the construction team was re-roofing house #1, another part of the team was prepping house #2. You can see a map of the location of both houses here. All photos are by Kyle Lamy except as noted. You can see Kyle's complete set of construction photos here. Don't miss Kyle's other Haitian photos here that are available for purchase. (All proceeds benefit the Haitian people.)

Photo credit: Moore
House #2 was typical of the many structures that remain incomplete for various reasons. 

In this case, the property owner is a woman with several children and extended family members living in a makeshift shelter constructed of tarps and sheets of corrugated metal.

However, her property also contained the beginnings of a house, with concrete block walls open to the sky...

...and a dirt floor covered in rubble.

The first step was to create a suitable floor, casting site-mixed concrete over the rubble. Parker demonstrates how to mix concrete in triathlon wear while Jacob, one of our amazing Haitian co-workers supervises. (The family's make-shift shelter is visible in the background.)

The floor begins its transformation under the direction of Fenel (in red shirt), our other Haitian coworker. (The man in the blue shirt was a local volunteer.)

And, the floor complete.

Photo credit: Moore
On the next day and after some minor block work by our friends Jacob and Fenel, we constructed a roof over the concrete block walls.

Like House #1, the roof was built from new corrugated metal over rafters and purlins of wood.

And the final result - a much improved (albeit still primitive) shelter for the family.

Here is the construction team at House #2 with the family.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Re-roofing in Haiti - House #1

After seeing Kyle Lamy's excellent pictures from our trip to Haiti, I thought some of you might appreciate some more detail on the construction projects our team undertook. (Photo credits: Kyle Lamy Photography, unless noted otherwise.) You can read an introduction to the Haitian trip here.

View My Saved Places in a larger map

The projects both involved roofs in the village of Galette, shown here as "House #1" and "House #2." (Regrettably, I don't have the names of the residents.) The subject of this post is House #1; I will follow with another post on House #2.

Typical house construction in this area of Haiti is concrete block walls built on rubble foundations, punctuated by cast-in-place concrete columns, usually at the corners. The roofs are typically corrugated metal on wood. Sometimes the walls are skim-coated with concrete to achieve a finished appearance. Often not.

House #1 is the home of a couple with several children, with the mother being the owner of the property. Although the house had a nominal roof, you can see that the condition was poor, at best - note the light coming through the holes. All of the metal panels appeared to have been reused from somewhere else, as evidenced by the multitude of nail holes.

The first order of business was to remove the existing roof, including the corrugated metal and the spliced poles supporting it. 

It was interesting to note that although we took no special care in removing the old roof, all of the materials were reclaimed by the residents and neatly stacked for future use.

After the existing roof was gone (and the odd rat inhabiting the walls killed), the tops of the walls were prepped to receive the new rafters.

Since the tops of the walls were particularly rough, the team installed new wood plates to provide a flattish surface. (Our in-country leader Jeff noted that the goal for Haitian construction is reasonably "straight and flat", not necessarily "plumb and square.") At the corners, the ubiquitous rebar extensions were re-bent over the plates to tie the roof to the walls.

There was no shortage of spectators from the school next door. We were a constant distraction, much to the chagrin to the teachers, I suspect.

Having set the plates in place, the rafters were toe-nailed to the plates, followed by purlins that were nailed and screwed to the rafters.

Credit: Moore
Finally, everything was covered by new corrugated metal.

One side effect of the new materials is the higher reflectivity properties, significantly improving the interior light of the spaces.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dialog in the Bottom

At first, hosting a public visioning workshop for Shockoe Bottom at the Virginia Holocaust Museum seemed strange and unsettling. The weighty narrative of THAT particular chapter of history provides some perspective for the inconveniences of finding a parking place or the non-local foods in the 17th Street Farmers Market. However, as the i.e.* sponsored event unfolded, common themes of memory and hope emerged as a conceptual backdrop for the conversation and the setting suddenly seemed appropriate (aside from being physically located in the Bottom and suitably sized for the event).

The event on Monday past, billed as being a continuation of the City government's focus on Shockoe Bottom, began with introductory remarks by Peter Chapman and Mayor Jones, signalling the City's commitment. Next on the agenda was an extremely brief summary of the Shockoe Bottom Economic Revitalization Study the City recently unveiled, with great emphasis given to the renovation of the Main Street Station Train Shed, presumably since that project is allegedly sunstantially funded. Finally, Floricane took the floor and led the assembled creative community through a short visioning workshop, focusing first on consensus themes for improving the Bottom (safety, traffic calming, mix of uses, etc.), followed by break-out sessions for topical brainstorming (Main St. Station, recommended goods and services, connectivity, branding, etc.). 

In typical fashion for workshops like this one, the real value was not the collection of Post-it notes nor the flip chart lists (though seeds of good ideas may ultimately emerge). The event was worthwhile because it created a forum to shape and refine ideas through generative dialog, not destructive debate. More, please.

Where is all of this headed? The answer will depend on leadership. This workshop was loaded with City administration, local activists, influential citizens, business leaders and energetic creative types. There were many potential leaders in the room. Where is the champion for a compelling narrative in this effort to revitalize Shockoe Bottom? Will the City's latest BIG EXCITING PROJECT in the form of the Main Street Station Train Shed renovation break the cycle of failed BIG EXCITING PROJECTS? Stay tuned. Only time will tell.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Haiti - Poetry of the Incomplete

Upon arriving in Haiti, one of the first visual impressions you receive is the national symbol of progress: rebar (concrete reinforcing steel) extending from the top of every structure.

Usually taking the form of  four rods girdled by rings of wire (aka stirrups), these antennae indicate points (or future points) of strength in masonry walls. Sometimes the bars are clearly intended for the future construction, extending from the foundation of a planned wall or from the roof for a second story. Sometimes the extensions have intrinsic practical purpose, such as tying wooden rafters to the walls (as primitive hurricane straps) or serving as anchor points for razor wire. Sometimes, the bars seem to serve no practical purpose at all, seemingly an accepted form of decoration for all construction projects, finished or not.

Unlike the US, there seems to be a universal acceptance in Haiti of the in-process construction site as normal. In the US, when construction pauses more than a few days, the project is assumed to be in an unnatural state of delay or under duress of some kind. One explanation for the contrast is that when someone accumulates some cash in Haiti, however meager the amount, there is tremendous cultural pressure to share that wealth with friends and family until it is gone. Under this pressure, one of the few acceptable ways to actually accumulate wealth is to invest in your building project. Thus, every in-progress construction site is a kind of investment bank and every pile of gravel a deposit.

There is another motivation for the construction to remain in a state of suspended animation. Property taxes are assessed on completed structures, exterior painting being the final sign of completion. Outside of commercial areas, almost nothing is painted.

As an urban environment, this perennially mid-construction state tends toward slow evolution. Familiar viewscapes are modified incrementally in small bursts over long periods of time, giving the viewer time to assimilate the process as memory, not just the usual "before" and "after." This experience feels a little like being inside a giant stop-action animation production of city building.

Ambiguity and mystery and abundant in this landscape of process - are these walls a post-earthquake ruin or mid-construction wealth accumulation or both?

Despite the obvious poverty and struggle for survival, strangely, this peculiar landscape also speaks of hope for the future and the resilience of Haiti's people. These enduring walls are always under construction, albeit at a leisurely pace.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Haiti - An Introduction

View from guesthouse terrace, CSI, Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti

In the second week of October, a medical/construction team of 22 people (mostly from Richmond) traveled to an area west of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Hosted by CSI, an organization that provides in-country infrastructure for visiting teams, the medical portion of the team ran a mobile clinic for 4 1/2 days, treating over 500 patients and dispensing over 2,000 prescriptions. Meanwhile, the construction team constructed three roofs and painted a portion of an orphanage. A mere drop in the proverbial bucket. 

The trip was far too short to claim any kind of comprehensive understanding of Haiti as a place or the Haitians as a people. However, I cannot help but look at the experience through the lens of an architect, making observations on the spaces, textures and relationships I saw during by brief journey. More to follow...