Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nonlinear Nature

In the introduction to A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Manuel De Landa writes, “human history did not follow a straight line, as if everything pointed toward civilized societies as humanity’s ultimate goal” (16). This statement, which is followed by myriad examples of nonlinear phenomena ranging from the evolution of language to economics to urbanization, stands in stark contrast to Le Corbusier’s assertion that “man, by reason of his very nature, practices order; his actions and his thoughts are dictated by the straight line and the right angle” (23). Though one of his cities was never constructed explicitly, Le Corbusier’s ideas influenced much of contemporary design; his tendency to pit humankind against nature also remains and is a problem with which civilization is still contending.

It should be noted that Le Corbusier is following in the Judeo-Christian tradition: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it,” God said to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1: 28). By the time Le Corbusier wrote his words in 1925, agriculture and industry had further separated man from nature; Marx had extended the concept of the domination of nature to production sixty years prior in Das Kapital. In this vein, Le Corbusier asserts that man has taken to interpreting the laws of the universe and has “made of them a coherent scheme, a rational body of knowledge on which he can act, adapt and produce” (23). This, he says, is human nature and therefore humans are right to seek order in what they create.

Le Corbusier follows this argument by noting that humans surround themselves with a “zone of protection” consisting of objects they have created. Then, in a maneuver that seems to counter his own argument, he writes that the objects that come in close contact with the body are the least ordered, while those at a greater distance are more geometrical. In a geographical sense, this could be read as saying that the objects with which we have the greatest connection are those of a more organic shape, and that we tend to keep them closer. Unsurprisingly, the entire field of ergonomic design springs from this relationship and is cited by designers like Victor Papanek as a step toward imbuing products with the spiritual. It follows that the rigid geometry of more distant constructions is likely rooted in a specific culture rather than universally present in human nature. The discipline inherent in geometrical forms coupled with the desire to dominate a chaotic nature points to what Baudrillard calls “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever known”: Christianity.

However, Le Corbusier does consider parts of nature valuable additions to his city, notably open green space and trees. He sees open space as having a salutary effect on the citizenry by serving as a setting for sports and games; trees are to be included in the setback areas of the residential buildings because they are aesthetically pleasing when viewed in conjunction with the concrete buildings. While some may consider nature to have an inherent value, Le Corbusier sees its utility.

The Situationists, on the other hand, envision a city that is less rationalized, though machines will free the citizens of work. They argue for a “city constituted of grand situations, between which the inhabitants would drift, endlessly” (117). The very selection of the word “drift” opposes the calls for speed and efficiency that Le Corbusier unapologetically repeats for three hundred pages, and hints at a more organic and natural experience. However, the very structure of the Situationist city is itself still separate from nature. The only mention of nature in the reading is when the new city is described as occupying the space above nature and agriculture (the control of nature). Constant’s New Babylon is envisioned not as space within the natural environment, but rather as a “creative game with an imaginary environment” (123). Sadler further distances New Babylon from nature when he writes that it “would be an exquisitely fabricated environment where everything would truly sing of humanity” (132), as well as when he compares the city to a windowless casino, in which the passing of days and seasons can go unnoticed, unless they are artificially reproduced to entertain occupants.

It is in Tony Garnier’s conception of the Cite Industrielle where nature is addressed more completely. Garnier sets two rules for his residential buildings link them to the natural environment and evoke contemporary ecological design. The first states that all bedrooms are required to have at least one south-facing window and the building must provide maximum sunlight throughout the structure. The second rule requires that all spaces are illuminated and ventilated from the outside. His sketches also show expansive green spaces and vegetation that appears to be manicured, thus continuing the domination of nature theme that connects the three readings. Furthermore, the factory that serves as the heart of the city is inherently devoted to transforming nature into material goods, and the schools concentrate on subjects such as metallurgy, which will lead to improved production. It is noted in Mariani’s introduction that Garnier does not include churches but it is clear that the religious legacy of controlling the nonhuman world remains.

Garnier manages to further connect his city to nature through the inclusion of the slaughterhouse and the hospital complex. The former embodies a connection to nature that sets Garnier apart from Le Corbusier and the Situationists, in that it explicitly addresses the role of nonhuman animals in the city. Similarly, the attention paid to hospitals and health in general serves as a reminder that the occupants of the Cite Industrielle are indeed mortal, which is a characteristic that might be lost while examining Le Corbusier’s and the Situationist’s work. Moreover, Garnier’s city is at the human scale, which seems to tilt the design back toward the natural. While none of these cities were ever built, and they each dominate nature, it is clear that Garnier’s conception pays it the most respect.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Obama and Emissions

In Texas, we call this approach that Obama is taking "kicking ass and taking names."

It appears that Monday he will order the EPA to reconsider state's rights to set fuel efficiency and emissions standards on automobiles.

Read the story here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama and Nutrition

Perhaps some changes to our industrial food system will be coming in the coming months?

Link here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Not Just Art

Another reading response for the class I'm taking. This one concerns a statement by Herman Muthesius in which he suggests that painters, or other practitioners of fine arts, are the driving force behind architectural innovation.

Not just Art

While it is likely true that Peter Behrens’ training as a painter enabled him to envision an innovative architecture for AEG, and that IBM’s Rochester, Minnesota plant by Eero Saarinen had a new, lightweight presence manifested in its thin aluminum and glass walls, Muthesius should take care not to reduce the new aesthetics of these buildings to mere artistic expression. Each of these companies was a leader in the high technology of the day, and wished to convey that image in the everyday use of their products and workplaces. Moreover, technical expertise and understanding of construction processes made the realization of these buildings possible. Taking these three dimensions into consideration leads to a more well-rounded analytical framework with which to examine these historic examples, contemporary architecture and, by extension, urban planning, urban design and landscape architecture.

In the case of the AEG turbine hall, Behrens was seeking to “translate the complexity of…[the] building into an aesthetic analogy” (Buddensieg, 63). The ability to successfully complete this task seems to be as rooted in Behrens’ personality (a social consideration) as in his past in the fine arts: his willingness to utilize his artistic training for commercial ends and to collaborate with the civil engineer Karl Bernhard ultimately led to a building that was both functional and expressive. Buddensieg concludes that Behrens thus demonstrated the artistic virtues of the industrial materials that formed the building, but stops short of connecting this success to his past in the fine arts. In fact, Buddensieg goes as far as to cite technical developments as the seed of Behrens’ “inclination toward special clarity in the interior and simplicity on the exterior” (66) of his buildings. While it is plausible that a painter’s eye for detail led to Behrens’ success in transforming architecture, Muthesius seems to overemphasize the contribution of a background in arts and crafts, and discount the role of social relations, business concerns, and technology.

Fast forward to the present and turn to the relatively new WAMU Center in downtown Seattle. The concept for the almost entirely glass fa├žade can be attributed to the architects but the realization is largely due to technical innovation. By utilizing performance-based design – that is, designing the building to meet performance objectives in a seismic event rather than designing for stresses limited by building codes – the structural designers laid out a bracing scheme that eliminated the need for a perimeter moment frame, which is typically required in steel construction in high seismic zones. The bands of opaque cladding that are seen on many Seattle skyscrapers are thus absent, creating a “lightness” owed to both the architects and engineers. Furthermore, there was an innovative financial interplay between the bank and the Seattle Art Museum – which inhabits the lower portion of the building – that made the entire project possible. In this example, the interplay of architects, engineers and focused business concerns again unites art and commerce via a progressive social relationship.

It naturally follows that ponderous architecture can lead to clumsily designed cities, but I find it hard to look solely to artists for salvation; considering the fields of urban planning and design, a quote from Jane Jacobs comes to mind: “A city cannot be a work of art” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 372). This assertion suggests that while nimble artistic disciplines such as painting may inform contemporary city design, proponents are ill-equipped to consider the diverse elements that constitute the real life functioning of the city. It follows that seeking to create an aesthetic analogy for a complex process, as Behrens does with the AEG turbine hall, is not a sufficient approach to solving problems at a scale much beyond that of the individual building. Jacobs continues to say that such an attempt leads to a place between life and art – taxidermy – and suggests that the real role of urban design is “helping to illuminate, clarify and explain the order of cities” (375). Artists, such as painters, photographers, filmmakers and writers are better equipped to play this role than to arrive at innovative solutions that are as based in technical and social sciences as they are in art.

Another important element of urban planning and design that defines cities is infrastructure. Classically understood as the water and sewage systems, electrical grid and network of roads and bridges, these systems are inherently ponderous, given their utilitarian function and physicality. However, future infrastructure (read: communication and mass transit networks), which largely consists of wireless connections and light rail – the latter of which is even semantically distinguished from its heavier industrial predecessor – is much more graceful and functional. These developments seem to be spurred by technical and business innovation, not to mention social pressures, rather than by fine arts. Completing the loop, Kieran and Timberlake see this shift to technology as the next innovation in architecture and even cite the computer company Dell’s business plan as a model to be followed.

Landscape architecture finds itself in a similar position, straddling the line between an artistic and a scientific discipline, and seeking to integrate both human and nonhuman life. Business concerns are involved to the point that they often employ landscape architects to create an environment that will lead to greater productivity or circulation, ultimately bringing increased profits. In this field, the aesthetic sensibility of a painter would once again be a desirable attribute of the designer, but it is still only one piece of the whole.

In the end, contemporary designers would likely be best served by recognizing the interdependence of disciplines beyond their own specialty. While one’s concentration may be in the aesthetic, technical, or social realm, an educated awareness of the validity of the other disciplines seems essential to further innovation. Gropius’s call for the architect as facilitator of various aspects of design applies here and can be seen as a basis for interdisciplinary studies.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


So, this post isn't about green building, but Modernism. I wrote this in response to Walter Gropius' The New Architecture and the Bauhaus and the La Sarraz Declaration.


Under the heading Standardization, and in the same vein as Rousseau’s Social Contract, where the political theorist suggests that society is formed on the idea that self-preservation comes easier when people cooperate, Walter Gropius asserts, “the elementary impulse of all national economy proceeds from the desire to meet the needs of the community at less cost and effort by the improvement of its productive organization” (30). Citing this as the basis for the rise of mechanization and industrialization, he continues to suggest that these new technologies can free the individual from physical toil and allow one to pursue higher order activities. Using reproducible standards is a method by which to increase manufacturing efficiency and, correspondingly, the amount of time for citizens to pursue higher order activities. Gropius thus sees it as a prerequisite for the development of civilization, rather than an impediment.

In the idealistic context in which he writes, this assertion is fairly easy to digest. Starting with his opinion that homogeneous town character is “the distinguishing mark of a superior urban culture” (38), one will likely accept that a built environment (read: buildings and cities) created from a catalog of high quality, low cost, mass-produced pieces, would lead to less time spent fussing over which ones to use, and more time combining them in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. From this point of view, by utilizing industrial technology to provide the basic building blocks, designers would be free to focus on the act of expression, which is akin to arranging musical notes into a symphony. It is this step of concentrating on the design, the assemblage, the expression, that Gropius sees as a higher order activity that is part of an evolving society.

With buildings and cities covered, one might be left wondering where is the creative process that goes into products themselves. Gropius would likely respond by saying that the higher order creative activity comes before mass production, in the design of the product prototypes. This reversal of the process for constructing buildings and cities from standard elements remains true to his position that standardization reduces the amount of time that a designer must toil away with material production. However, several pressing issues remain: What is a designer to do after all products have been standardized? Are standards updated regularly and, if so, were they ever really standards? By insisting that a designer removes himself from the product, as Gropius does, the ritual of creation that Walter Benjamin defines as making works of art disintegrates, and what is left is merely a simulacrum of the prototype. I am left wondering if this is what designers intend to create.

Unfortunately, it seems like part of this utopia of standardization has come true while the other has followed a different trajectory. Rather than creating a splendid assembly of expressive houses, built from high quality, mass-produced elements, we have managed to distort this dream and have covered much of our former farmland with homes based on standardized plans and built from, and later filled with, artless mass-produced material. And while the efficiency of mechanized production has increased the amount of time that can be devoted to higher order activities, we, as Americans, have not exactly chosen to do so. I mention this not to disparage the concept of standardization but to point out that – as Gropius later mentions in his discussion of the Bauhaus – a change in the material production system does not necessarily lead to the desired social outcome.

However, on the social front, Gropius makes a strong argument for the power of standardization with regard to standards of living. He sees the standardization of buildings as a way to increase quality at a lower cost, thereby raising living standards for people in lower socioeconomic categories. This idea can be extended both to products (in the sense that anything consumed or used is a product, whether natural or man-made) such as access to clean drinking water or the increasing reliance on personal automobiles, and to cities, where a standard of safety and cleanliness should be extended to all citizens. In these examples, it is abundantly clear that standardization is a prerequisite to the development and progress of civilization.

The fact that Gropius acknowledges that some may see standardization as an impediment reveals that not everyone agrees with his point of view. His dismissal of the position that standardization may crush individuality as a myth is troubling. It seems evident that the current state of suburban housing, in which many standards have been reduced to their price, has suffered immensely from standardization run amok. It follows that a major flaw with his position is that he neglects the fact that the designer is not the ultimate authority when it comes to decisions about products, buildings or the future layout of cities. His salvation comes in the form of the Bauhaus, where design education leads to a standard language that can inform the enlightened masses of the potential outcomes of good design.

The signatories of the La Sarraz Declaration would have likely been very strong supporters of Gropius’s position, as clearly evidenced by their statement that “architecture can spring only from the present time” (109). Given that their document was signed at a time defined by mass production, and that standardization is supported by mechanical production, the link between the signatories and Gropius is inescapable. Furthermore, the La Sarraz document defines economic efficiency as requiring minimal working effort and explicitly states that standardization and rationalization are the most efficient methods of production. In their section on Town Planning, the signatories call for “a collective and methodical land policy” (111) which could also be described as a policy based on agreed upon standards of use. Finally, the documents are linked in promotion of standardization through the goal of education: The La Sarraz Declaration calls for a domestic science that essentially standardizes everything from sunlight to hygiene to household economics, in a true rationalization of everyday life.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Economic Downturn

Well, the economic downturn has finally become a reality to me. I had been working as a structural engineer for the last five and a half years and was laid off yesterday.

Read about the experience here.

But, as a friend over a Pb Elemental said, now is a good time to devote more time to this blogging/organizing to build a co-op endeavor. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe everyone's favorite Modernist, Le Corbusier, did a lot of his theorizing while out of work. Not that I can be compared to him for many reasons, but you get the idea.

I am taking another course at UW this quarter, entitled The Contemporary Built Environment. It requires quite a bit of reading and written response to each assignment so expect some posts on that. We also have to give two presentations relating to the reading material. I have been blessed with giving presentations on Products, Buildings and the Global Economy and Built Environment and Place, both of which relate nicely to my interests in consumerism and development.