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...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Envisioning Richmond's Golden Age - Introduction

What would the urban fabric of Richmond look like if, over time, it grew in a way that people began to characterize it as a "great" city, in the context of not only the United States, but the world? What might it's "Golden Age" look like?

In his seminal book "Cities in Civilization"', Sir Peter Hall examined 21 great western cities that could be said to have experienced a "Golden Age" at some point in their history. These cities, beginning with the Athens of 2500 years ago, somehow marshaled creative, social, and technological forces to such a degree as to have unleashed a spirit of innovation or discovery so fantastic it left an indelible mark on western society and culture, or even changed its course. According to Sir Hall, the cities that have undergone a golden age were, like Athens, generally considered "great" in the context of the world at the time of their transformative era: Florence in the 15th century, Shakespearean London in the 16th century, Paris in the 19th, Berlin in the early 20th. Interestingly, he notes that the confluence of creativity and discovery necessary to foster these belles époques is a uniquely " urban phenomenon". He goes on to pose these questions, among others:

"How do these golden ages come about? Why should the creative flame burn so especially, so uniquely, in the cities and not in the countryside? What makes a particular city at a particular time suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative?"

Sir Hall offers some clues to the answers of at least some of his questions in the form of an excerpt of an autobiography written by Stefan Zweig, who, in the late nineteenth century, lived in one of the profiled cities, Vienna, during one of these brief golden ages:

"Growing slowly through the centuries, organically growing outward from inner circles, it was sufficiently populous, with its two million, to yield all the luxury and all the diversity of a metropolis, and yet it was not so oversized as to be cut off from nature, like London or New York... Within, the old palaces of the court and the nobility spoke history in stone... In the midst of all this, the new architecture reared itself proudly and grandly with glittering avenues and sparkling shops."

"Growing slowly, ...organically", having the "diversity of a metropolis", not "cut off from nature", "new architecture" that is "proud" and "grand". Keen observations of a lay person on some of the physical characteristics that may be important harbingers of a great city. While there are obviously myriad paths to making a great city, we will, over the course of subsequent posts, take some of these ideas as a starting point, as we envision what Richmond might look like were it poised to experience its own belle epoque. 

Of course, there is no hurry. Though there were many great cities in the world at the time of Athens, Sir Hall does not record another one undergoing a golden age era until the Renaissance took root in Florence a thousand years later. Richmond is a very young city and has a lot of growing up to do just to get to be "great", not to mention being in a position to experience a golden age.

But as we believe Richmond has some excellent foundations on which to build, we will consider opportunities to grow, evolve, or transform the urban fabric in a way that would not only enhance current residents' enjoyment of the city, but attract new residents with a desire to feed off and add to the creative energy of our city. Perhaps one day, decades or centuries in the future, people will dream of visiting the magical city of Richmond on the James, hoping to see first hand its mesmerizing architecture and to partake in its impossibly rich culture, breathe in the sweet smells of its blossoming restaurants and cafes, and lose themselves in its endless oases of garden-like urban spaces...

What could you envision?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hanging in the 804...Maybe

Once upon a time, telephone area codes meant something specific about a telephone number: a current place.

However, with the loosening of telecom regulations and the widespread use of mobile devices, area codes no longer automatically identify the location of the "other end of the line." 

The list of mobile numbers for the employees of Glave & Holmes, all of whom are currently based in Richmond (804), include area codes for central Indiana (317), Idaho (208), Nashville (615), Shenandoah Valley (540), suburban Detroit (248), Minneapolis (612), Boston (617), St. Louis (314), Chicago (630) and Washington D.C (202). Although a call to or from one of these numbers tells you something about the one-time location of the phone, a call from 617 is no longer necessarily "from Boston." Increasingly, mobile phone users are usually given a phone number from place of the phone's origin and keep that number despite subsequent moves.

Even prefixes (the three digits after the area code) used to mean more. The prefix 232 used to mean a location south of the James river and prompt questions like, "Which part of Southside are you from?" With the advent of greater number portability, my 232 number is now able to (uneasily) coexist with the typically West End prefixes of 282, 285 and 747.

In a related lament for endangered experiences, it has been said that increasingly, we no longer call places, we call people. It is not uncommon for households to cancel landline service in favor of mobile phones. An unintended casualty of this practice is the incidental conversation with the person who answers the "house phone."

Profound observations? Perhaps not. Yet, it seems worthwhile to consider our connections with one another and how our identity with places are linked to conscious and unconscious signs. When you have an incoming call and see an unfamiliar number on your screen, what clues do you have for identifying the caller? What does a 757 area code mean? Maybe less than you think.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Future Visions of Transportation

A long-time fan of science fiction novels, short stories and films, I grew up reading authors like Orson Scott Card, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, the author of the short story I, Robot. 

Recently, I had the chance to see the 2004 film adaptation of the short story, starring Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan. Although the film simplified many of the intellectual subtleties of the story and added predictable amounts of Hollywood action, I still found the movie to be enjoyable. I am a fan, after all.

The film I, Robot is set in the Chicago of 2035 and although there is at least one scene with the familiar elevated railway, all of the characters seem to prefer travel on freeways in private vehicles that appear to clock speeds well over 200 mph, all controlled by computers for safety and efficiency. However, the main character, Del Spooner, played by Will Smith, has a tendency to override the computer control and take manual control of his uber-cool 2035 Audi (product placement, please).

One of the most memorable action sequences in the movie involves Del being attacked by homicidal robots while hurtling down the futuristic freeway.

To survive, Del takes manual control of the car from the traffic control system (a frequent, if discouraged, practice for the main character), ensuring that he can perform the necessary acrobatics. This idea of individual control versus centralized control is a key theme in the film. And, in the context of the movie-action heroics, we discover a particular viewpoint of the future of urban transportation, especially in the United States: 

[a] that technologically advanced private vehicles on technologically advanced superhighways are preferable to public transit and 

[b] that efficient, computer sequenced highways are ok for the masses, but sometimes you have to "take the wheel" for individual expression or basic survival. 

In other words, even the barest nod to public-spirited transportation found in computer-controlled traffic control is not to be trusted (just like those damn robots.)

If the science fiction genre allows the positing of trends, what is being said about the future of transportation in our cities? In the case of I, Robot, the message seems to be that the largely car-centric culture of the United States will continue to evolve into faster, more efficient private transportation that reinforces an identity of hyper-individual liberty. At what cost? If today's freeway cloverleaf takes more land area than medieval Florence, how much land will be required for 200 mph turns?

[Source: Google Earth]

As a contrast, what alternatives could a near-future science fiction propose for public transit in the United States? Is there an alternative that promotes public transit as an integrated way of life? What other near-future depictions of transportation do you remember from films? Leave a comment...

Friday, September 02, 2011

First Friday Sketches - September Edition

Today we sketched from Jefferson Park at the edge of Union Hill. Enjoy.

 John Spain

 Andrew Moore

Lori Garrett

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How to Climb a [Church] Hill

At the north east corner of 21st Street and East Franklin is a steeply sloping hillside, known as Taylor's Park Hill. It is, in fact, a public park and the foot of the Church Hill neighborhood. At the top is a spectacular panoramic view of downtown Richmond. 
This hillside corner is a dramatic boundary between Church Hill and Shockoe Bottom and for as long as I have been in Richmond, the most direct way to cross the boundary was to climb the steep concrete stairs. 
The stairs traversed the terraces of the slope and partway to the top, there was a paved walkway that followed the slope up to the right. At the very top, there was a muddy, overgrown path to the left that led you to the overlook. Neither path was easily accessible or used very often.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, heavy equipment began excavating the hillside to install large storm water pipes, demolishing the existing stair in the process. 

Immediately following the pipe installation, the contractor began recreating the demolished stair, a monumental construction task.
This begs the question of whether the stair should be simply recreated in its little-used, difficult-to-negotiate original form? Was there an opportunity for design that was missed? Building any stairway in this location is a significant (read "expensive") feat of construction. Could there have been a grander vision?

Surprisingly, there is actually a site devoted to public stairs and the Libby Hill Stairway makes the crowd-sourced list. The Taylor's Hill Park Stairway is at least as significant as Libby Hill.(Incidentally, The Libby Hill Stairway also appears to be a recently recreated project following the preexisting pattern.) 

Perhaps a "Church Hill Steps" would be the wrong scale...
[Spanish Steps, Rome;]
...but Taylor's Hill is a notable connection within the urban fabric and worthy of celebration. Instead, it appears that we will get a shiny new version of what was there before. Maybe the muddy path will be improved...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tips for a Better Boom Boom Burger

Back in May, I penned a piece on the demise of Boom Boom Burgers, the innovative yet ill-fated burger joint that lasted six months in Shockoe Bottom, and how the owner's reasons for the failure didn't hold up to scrutiny.

During a recent visit to Atlanta, I was delighted to stumble across Yeah! Burger and was immediately struck by the ways YB was superior to Boom Boom despite having a similar intent (local, organic, high-quality burgers).

1. Location, location and yes, location. YB is located on a highly visible, heavily trafficked (pedestrian and vehicle) corner in Virginia Highlands. The seating is plentiful and includes an enclosable patio (see and be seen). It is not hidden on a side street.

2. Menu. Simple and complete. Pick your patty (all natural, grass fed, organic, including a vegetarian option), choose your bun (including a gluten-free option), add toppings and fill it out with sides (including multiple varieties of fries, onion rings and other great stuff). Plus, YB has a kick-ass selection of beer, wine and spirits. Finish with ice cream. Check it out here.

3.Value. The portions are generous and despite the fact YB isn't cheap (a meal is going to cost $10-$12 minimum), the great food plus great atmosphere makes it seem worth the money. And YB accepts all normal forms of payment including (gasp) cash.

So, Boom Boom take note. There is a better way.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Diamonds in the Rough

Patrick Dougherty's work "Diamonds in the Rough" at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is called a sculpture, but it's really a fine piece of architecture. As soon as my children saw it, they ran to it and entered its maze, which seems to go on and on even though the piece occupies a relatively small site.
Timeless and slightly witchy, the twisted sweetgum and maple structure invites one to wander quietly through its chambers, randomly encountering others who are similarly drawn. There is a faint, dry, woody smell which recalled for me the notion of ancient libraries, repositories of arcane knowledge. Everyone I saw there felt compelled to touch the stems, taut and growing more rigid as they dry in the sun.
The piece is not permanent, the artist will take it down before it crumbles. Some of the volunteers seem to have an interesting idea - a bonfire (with the fire department close at hand, of course.) So see it soon. And often - it should be interesting to see how it changes over its life of a year or so. The patches of maroon-brown leaves in the walls, like crumbling parchment may gone soon, that's my guess.
There are more details, photos, and a timelapse video of the construction at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's website.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Everything Spreads Out

Paradise Drive, begins with a description of a drive through the urban-to-rural transect of an American city, starting with the downtown "urban hipster zone" and ending in the exurbs, the domain of Patio Guy and Realtor Mom. Often riotously funny, David Brooks' narrative on Middle American culture is freewheeling and painfully insightful. One of the most piercing chapters, "Working," skewers the pop business world of motivational speakers and bestselling books, such as Who Moved My Cheese?. Brooks fantasizes that he might have been Ray Croc, creating a motivational empire around "Find Your Fry! Follow Your Fry," ultimately shortened through loving familiarity to Fry!. Good stuff.

Perhaps the most insightful proposal Brooks makes in the book is that the American suburbs are a reflection of a peculiar cultural phenomenon - finding new geographic space for personal interests. If you don't like your neighbors, find some you like and move there. This leads to the characteristic dispersal of the suburbs and exurbs, with the penultimate example being the gated community. Contrast this with the historical association with Place that is typical of urban life. If you consider your identity to rooted in a particular Place, then the motivation to resolve cultural tensions exist in situ. Certainly, there are innumerable enclaves within any city that cater to particular (and peculiar) tastes and people choose to locate and relocate according to those interests. However, these choices are exercised within the hierarchies of existing city fabric, not through dispersal. Furthermore, cities foster the idea that my Place is worth fighting for - the cause of much tension, both creative and destructive - but reinforcing the sense of Place nonetheless.

The psychological, sociological and cultural isolation that result from the suburban lifestyle has been widely discussed. Inverting the discussion, Brooks suggests that a culture of deliberate, cellular dispersal is reflected and empowered by the suburbs.