The Architecture of Life: January 2008

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Designing and Building a Nation III

(Part of a series of related posts - First One here)

John Edwards and Rudy Guiliani abandoned their quests for the Presidency today. Their poor showings in the Florida primary apparently "slammed the door" on their hopes for a turnaround in their campaigns.

Politics in America is complex and hard to predict. The electorate - particularly in this election season - is boisterous, dissatisfied with government and ready for a change. At least that is the "story" being told today in America.

Just for fun, we are telling a story too. It is a story about how we might "build a nation" using the same techniques we might use when designing and building a home.

After all, most of us think of the nation in which we live as our "home country."

But the word "home" has a lot of different meanings which I go on at length about here.

So the first thing I want to talk about in this post is not the "bricks and sticks" that make up our national project, but the "story" that is the heart of it.

Because a nation and a home must start with a story in the minds of those who build them - and after they are built - that story never really stops being written.

Howard Mair puts it this way.

"Stories are habitations. We live in and through stories. They conjure worlds. We do not know the world other than story world. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart. We inhabit the great stories of our culture...are lived by the stories of our race and place...We are, each of us, locations where the stories of our place and time become partially tell able."

For a small town storyteller, that says it all. America is defined in many ways not by its geography, its political system or foreign policy, but by the inspirational tales at its heart.

That is also true of a home. A home tells the stories of the people who inhabit it, but the stories of both homes and nations are often largely fictional.

There is a perfectly good reason for that.

In a world where everything is subject to interpretation, the only truth is a useful interpretation. If you are going to live a story, you might as well pick one with a happy ending.

And life offers very few "happy endings" for a home or a nation. Both crumble into dust in time. Denying the evidence of history is the reason we are so committed to our personal, familial and national "stories."

Facing the inevitable decline of our bodies and of those we love is no fun and makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning.

The same is true about the true story of our country. There is nothing particularly inspirational about the real experiences of the genocide of Native Americans, the War Between the State, either of last centuries world wars, Viet Nam, the invasions of Grenada and Panama or our current adventure in Iraq.

So in order to rationalize our own self-interest, we weave stories of heroic struggles against tyranny and evil, repeating the oft-told tale that we are fighting to save freedom and the "American way of life."

But of course all those horrific wars were a very big part of our "way of life" and sadly, for many of us, the "way of death."

The stories we tell about our nation may not be true, but they sound a lot better when you tell them that way.

Next post is series here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Designing and Building a Nation II

(Second of a series of related posts- Part One here.)

Now that we have completed a "cursory site examination" of the building site upon which our political project was begun, let's take a look at the programming for the project.

"Programming" is what architects and design professionals call the process of collecting criteria for the design of a project.

The advantage of establishing such criteria is that it provides you with guidelines for the design of the structure that give the designer a better chance of staying true to the needs of the inhabitants.

That is assuming the criteria you collect comes from those inhabitants, and not from the fevered imaginations of the architects and builders.

So in our on-going metaphor, what were the criteria for that design?

Happily in this case, we have a pretty thorough set of design criteria. It is called the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The project is also informed by an earlier document - quite controversial at the time - referred to as the Declaration of Independence.

The building permit was contested by the authorities in this case, and as a result, a war was required before real construction could begin.

Great Britain at the time had strict land use and architectural controls regarding their colonies, so our nation' s designers and builders had to "fight city hall" to make their project viable.

But once they accomplished that, they had a pretty clear vision of the type of nation they wanted to construct.

They wrote down their "first principles" (a specifications document) in the Constitution and Bill of Rights and said those criteria were "created equal" for all upcoming projects.

This was a good move, because their goal was to acquire a great deal of additional real estate and though they knew lots of change orders were inevitable, they did not want to suffer major revisions in the design as the scope of their projects grew.

Those "first principles" were predominantly values, goals and moral and ethical standards for human beings and society...not for the structure of the "sticks and bricks" that would be used to build the project.

They were criteria like equality, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, etc. etc. All building standards we take for granted now, but at the time, they were revolutionary new building technologies for political structures.

A question that arises here, is why such values and goals are for the most part, not a central goal of architectural programming today.

After all, the buildings we design are supposed to house human beings. Human beings are emotional and cognitive organisms who are quite impetuous and reactive. They tend to do better on long-term projects when guidelines are established.

And really, it is hard to take the human being out of the purpose of a building, no matter how effectively the modern and post modern movements in architecture have tried to do so.

So why are these human "first principles" not part of present day architectural programming?

Why don't we try to find out how people feel about their built environments; what they care about and what values they use to guide their lives; how they live day to day within those environments - before we set out to design a building?

Why do those of us in the design community tend to think "how to" instead of "what fits?"

And "what will it look like" instead of "who will be living in it and how do they live?"

This question goes beyond "form follows function." It goes to the question of a building's human purpose, and the nature of the human beings who will inhabit it.

Which seems like a good area to investigate if you are designing buildings for human beings.

Next post is series here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Designing and Building a Nation

I have been thinking of late of the similarities between building a home...and building a nation.

A nation is, after all, a society built for common defense - a set of agreements made by many - with the goal being to shelter their children and possessions from harm.

Which is the same rational my wife used when she decided we should put new carpet and a dishwasher in our little house in the mountains.

So with that metaphor in mind, I have decided to speculate on what architecture has to offer our political leaders; and conversely, what the political process of nation building has to offer to the practice of architecture.

This seems to me a rich vein to mine in an election year, so I think I will celebrate the beginning of 2008 with a series of posts that explore two simple questions:

"If you were going to design and build a nation from scratch, how could the experience of capable architects and builders inform its design?"

and second...

"What can architecture learn from the democratic political process that might help designers better serve the needs of their clients?"


It seems to me the best place to start is with definitions and "first principles."

Exploring such a metaphor is dangerous if you cannot define what elements of the fabric of a nation can be fairly compared to that of a building project.

I might end up comparing Hillary Clinton to a vacuum cleaner , or John McCain to a delapidated but reliable old HVAC system right at the outset, and my entire inquiry could dissolve into irrelevance.

It is perhaps true that one part of that metaphor might be applicable. After all, most politicians move a lot of air, often permeated with dirt and other impurities...but once you get past that surface similarity, the comparison falls flat.

There is no real evidence that Hillary would "clean up" America, nor that Senator McCain would "cool down" the political discourse in the nation.

So if we are going to commit ourselves to integrity in our search for any real solutions each domain of human activity has to offer the other, we must launch our inquest where all good stories must the beginning.

And that would be with a site examination. After all, no capable designer would begin a design without first assessing the characteristics of the site upon which that building - or that nation - will be constructed.

We all have some idea of the site upon which the construction of our nation was originally begun.

Geographically, it was the East coast of the North American continent. Culturally, the building site was dominated by British general contractors, with a variety of Dutch, French, Spanish, German, African and other secondary sub-contractors.

Politically, the building site was taken by force and political manipulation from an indigenous population who were overwhelmed by the superior business planning and acquisitiveness of the invading European nations.

Ideologically, it was born from the political history of Britain, but modified by the ideas of the time - which were in large part coming from French intellectuals.

Site acquisition followed a successful model already tested in South and Central America by the Spanish, and in Africa and Asia by a variety of earlier European real estate developers.

They used the same rational by which our government acquired the bulk of the state of New Mexico, a principle called "eminent domain."

As soon as native lands were eminent on the horizon - we decided they should be our domain.

So the site conditions on the land upon which the "land of the free" was built had a significant pitch to its grade. Things went uphill for the European settlers, and decidedly downhill for the existing native American inhabitants.

It was sort of like the "gentrification" of inner city neighborhoods close to downtown by upscale white professionals. Once it started, it was impossible to stop.

Thus, the American nation was built upon the typically opposing principles of self-interest and cooperation.

After all, our forefathers cooperated very effectively to clear the building site of features that did not meet their design criteria - for instance native Americans and a great portion of our nation's native forests.

They did that so they could make more money and build equity in their newly acquired real estate. However, some of their investments were short-sighted. The fact that less than 2% of California's giant redwoods exist today attests to that fact.

If the existing inhabitants did not have a good title, and there was quite a lot of mischief in that arena during the nations growth westward, well life is tough and then you die.

Those with the money and political swack would explain to the dispossessed homesteaders and native populations that it was just business. Nothing personal.

Not much difference between how it all began and how any other speculative real estate development begins in today's America.

So the creation of the United States could be seen as a series of somewhat risky subdivisions built out in the boonies by wildcat developers using the money of investors on the other side of the Atlantic who hadn't the slightest idea what kind of swampland they were financing.

When times were good, new towns and settlements sprung up like flowers in the Spring. When times were hard, they dried up and blew away like tumbleweeds. As the suburbs filled up with gated communities, the aging inner city neighborhoods deteriorated.

People either made huge profits or lost their buckskin shirts. Distress properties were bought for a song, then flipped for a quick profit. Smaller competitors were squeezed out and a lot of money changed hands under the table.

So nothing fancy. The development of America followed a pattern just like a typical day at work for many architects, builders and developers in Florida, California or New York City.

So what we have learned in this first post is that the building of our nation - and the practice of speculative real estate development - have a lot in common at first glance.

Both begin with acquiring land for a low price, and the aspiration to sell it for a high price.

That appears to have worked fine all across the continent until our founding developers ran into the Pacific Ocean - where except for sporadic forays into Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Southeast Asia and Iraq - we ran out of real estate.

Which explains why homes are so expensive in San Francisco.

It's all about location, location, location.

Next post in series here.