Touching the ground – how?

For the past couple of years I’ve been proudly cultivating a theory of architecture and sustainability which I believed bridged all of the gaps between my various interests in the field and which could usher in a truly new way of seeing things to unite designers, engineers, and the inhabitant. In essence, it espouses physical closeness to nature and celebrates common building systems which mediate the relationship between natural resources and dwelling, all in order to elevate the status of ‘sustainability’ in our consciousness. One basic example that follows this instruction is a green roof, since conceptually, moving the ground that would be displaced by the building footprint up to the roof preserves the total surface area of the ground (if viewed from above, a house with a green roof would blend in with its surroundings). Another variation of this example is earth-sheltering, where instead the building itself is partially sunk into the ground to take advantage of the earth’s high R-value. Both of these approaches force the designer and builder to consider what they are displacing, and continuously strive for balance and homeostasis as nature does.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris does this as well, embracing the building’s lifeblood and turning it out for all to see. When we learned about this building in architecture school the upshot (to be memorized for the final exam) was that it’s the apotheosis of postmodernism, which may be true, but it’s much more than that. In light of the sustainability struggle, the Centre Pompidou takes the important first step of bringing us in direct contact with the elements that flow within the earth itself: water, gas, electricity. Forcing us to confront these elements directly will hopefully lead us to value them more– so rather than shoving them out of sight, we put the space allotted for them on equal ground with the space allotted for us. All this serves to bind our fate as a species with the fate of the planet. Therein, my core principle of what it is to be human.

Image via centrepompidou.fr.
Jacobs House II; Frank Lloyd Wright; 1948; the berm on the right side of the photo is evidence of earth sheltering. Image via columbia.edu.
A temazcal, the traditional bathhouse of the Pre-Columbian people of Mesoamerica. These were typically designed as domes or small hills with very low ceilings. Inside was pitch dark. Entering a temazcal is symbolic of going underground into the core of the Earth, of burial and rebirth, and of a mother’s womb. Inside, one chants to the god Mother Earth. — Particularly after the arrival of the Spanish and the persecution and destruction of the indigenous population and their traditions, temazcals had to be built quickly and surreptitiously, often being half-buried in the ground to avoid being identified. Image via Sputnik Mundo.

But in April in Mexico I picked up a book of Buckminster Fuller’s lectures, and my mind was changed. There are other ways to be sustainable– in fact, there are situations in which the act of ‘digging in’ and immersing oneself into the earth does more harm than good. In those situations, one has to do the opposite. Instead of assuming that he needs to directly contact the earth to dwell in it, Fuller instead is interested in “touching the earth lightly,” floating above it, creating space between us and it (like the inevitable gaps you get when you fill a jar with marbles). In Fuller’s worldview, the next stage of human evolution will discard the old violent instinct of displacing earth in place for a more aerodynamic lifestyle, controlled by those invisible forces that we’ve learned to manipulate like magnetism and gravity, closer resembling the greater cosmos itself. He also predicts we will have prefabricated houses installed by helicopter and that our resources to be used for the benefit of 100% of mankind.

And what follows that? The cosmos, naturally. Buckminster Fuller sees no reason why humans shouldn’t begin inhabiting other planets once technology allows it. He is binding humanity to scales both atomic and cosmic.

Buckmister Fuller’s chart showing the relationship between world population and its percentage of slaves, or, “have nots.”
Buckmister Fuller’s done home in Carbondale, IL. Image via architectmagazine.com.

I mentioned this flip in my mind to Justin, and he said that his structural engineering firm is becoming more and more interested lately in design for disaster relief. He traveled to Kathmandu shortly after the earthquake in 2015 and was struck by how the overwhelming majority of houses were built of unreinforced masonry (practically the worst construction type to resist the lateral forces of earthquakes). Simply switching to lighter timber frames with moment connections would make the population a degree of magnitude more resilient. Furthermore, if an when a disaster does strike, the first thing most relief organizations do is air-drop food and shelter. Touching the earth lightly suddenly becomes a most valuable asset. I’m unsure if Buckminster Fuller specifically had disaster relief in mind, but it’s certainly becoming a reality for a wider and wider range of people than ever. Geodesic relief domes, delivered by helicopter, assembled in two hours by two people, may by necessity become the dwelling place of the future.

Garrison Architects; NYC Emergency Housing Prototype. As visible in the photo, the entire house sits on small concrete spot footings, as minimally invasive to the ground as possible. Image via garrisonarchitects.com.
A Geodesic Dome being transported by helicopter. Image via smithsonianmag.com.
Assmebling a Geodesic Dome. Image via phaidon.com.

Still Life With Columns

For Diane Lewis

WALK UPRIGHT   COUNT TO TEN
DRAW A LINE       GO TO SLEEP
Syllabus atop a stool
Memento mori, unwillingly.

Yorick’s skull just now set down
(Like your hand once weighed ideas)
Warm erasers, smeared and dark
With residue of angel’s wings

Wood and steel and acetone
Bloodless, in the background
Nothing breathing, nothing cold,
Smoke escapes beyond the frame

(Sometime before, you fixed your eyes
Blasting forth that loving beam
Some lost limbs, were sliced like plans,
we lost our heads. New York burned down).

Shards of paint from fallen skies
If nine columns were to buckle,
Pushing out infesting life was
A nightmare you told us to have.

A headache in our gilded minds
Ideas, like voids, kick and scream
To be released from custody
back to mother’s arms.

Perfect stillness. Strain to think,
cease to be an architect,
fill the studio silence
which none of us admit:
that for this perfect still life
a frame of perfect death.

We wish we could continue
The same the same procession
That’s been performed since eighty two:
Us, in pointless black, weeping,
bearing monoliths with nothing inside
but ideas, nightmares, acute angels.

Bring this queen to her grave!, we sing,
Williams’ O mother of flames!, but
OMNIA CAMENAE IN VANITAS EST.
Now that you’re not here anymore
Will our world become… inhabited…
And everything unravel…?

When DBZ Jumped the Shark

Very rarely do two chapters of my life confront one another directly. Most of the time I pass my days evolving, hoping that things I have done in the past that became pieces of me will just fade into memory and not have to be repeated. But two of the great things about Charlotte is that she makes me want to open that wunderkammer of my past AND analyze it in the fresh light of my present self.

And so it happened that one evening after coming out of the Cinemex on Avenida Reforma in Mexico City. We had just seen Wonder Woman, about which there was much fanfare, specifically the debate about whether or not it was feminist. Our analysis of it boiled down to: the first half does indeed touch on numerous good topics for feminism, but the second half leaves them all undeveloped for the sake of tired superhero-movie cliches. Referring to the CGI’d and over-the-top final battle scene, Charlotte wondered aloud if it had jumped the shark.

“Jumping the shark” is one of many phrases of American English I learned from her since we started dating almost ten years ago. Every couple of months or so she will say something like “bull in a China shop” or “as the crow flies,” and I will have to ask her to explain. In this manner I learned what “jumping the shark” means, that it originated with the show Happy Days, where, in the fifth season, The Fonz (a character close to my heart for coincidental reasons) literally jumps over a shark on a pair of water skis– a scene which signaled that the show had exhausted all possibility of development and therefore had no other recourse but to do something truly over-the-top to maintain viewership.

I understood what Charlotte meant: like many superhero movies (both from DC and Marvel), Wonder Woman suffered from trying to cram too much plot into one feature. Attempting to fit an origin story, a love story, and three villains into 140 minutes, they dug themselves into a hole by the end, leaving no cinematic way out for Wonder Woman to defeat the bad guy other than with a kind of cataclysmic explosion. Using her mysterious powers (which we only hear a cursory explanation of) combined with the power of love (for a character which she had only known for a week), she absorbs the lighting-like energy from Ares into her wristbands, stores it, jumps (or flies) high into the air, then releases it back at him, causing a huge explosion. All that is left when the dust settles is a crater. The movie ends.

Wonder Woman absorbs Ares’ lightning bolt.

Seeing that scene, in conjunction with the phrase “jumping the shark” which was fresh in my mind, suddenly set off a whole train of thought which is the subject of this post.

As a teenager I was an enormous fan of the Akira Toriyama-created Japanese manga-turned-anime series Dragon Ball Z. This is the first time I am even publicly announcing this. Why it has never surfaced up to this point is most likely because of embarrassment in retrospect, since it is widely accepted that Western consumers of manga and anime are dorks to the maximum degree. Between about the ages of 12 and 17 it occupied much of my life, including that of my parents whom I regularly asked to leave work and come home to record new episodes on VHS while I was at music school. And like riding a bicycle, certain parts of the show have simply lodged themselves inside me, pegged to the pinboard of my brain like old postcards, subtly filtering many thoughts and experiences that have passed through since. Thus the story’s plot re-emerged as I thought of Wonder Woman.

In short, Dragon Ball Z is about a Superman-type humanoid alien protagonist with superhuman powers who lands on Earth as a child and spends his entire life defending the planet from various enemies. The whole series sees no less than twenty main villains, and totals 291 episodes across 7 sagas. Think about that for a moment. For perspective, Lost, the ABC TV show which everyone agrees went on for too long and got too complicated, had only 121 episodes in total, less than HALF of DBZ. Eventually, a television show with such an ambitious scope has to run into serious narrative challenges developing the characters, making them stronger, making the stakes higher, etc. At what point does a show like DBZ jump the shark?

Episode 5, in which Piccolo kills both Raditz and Goku.

DBZ begins with the arrival on Earth of the protagonist Son Goku’s malicious older brother Raditz, who has come to kill the former. After 4 episodes, Son Goku sacrifices himself to defeat Raditz. That’s right: in episode 5 of 291, the protagonist dies.

What next after death? Like many stories before and since, DBZ employs a method of multiverse-storytelling, where we progressively learn of higher and higher dimensions in an expansive multiverse of which Earth exists on only the lowest rung. To me, these dimensions have always been a cop-out, since the moment you learn that a hero goes to an afterlife and can be resurrected, the significance of fighting and dying in the Earth realm is irreversibly diminished.

But in most of the early stages of the story, we only know of one rung above the Earth realm, and that a person can only die and be brought back to life once. In other words, the scope of the story is still restrained with understandable limitations, and these limitations make the battles more exciting. Being impaled through the torso by an energy beam (in Raditz’s and Goku’s case) or being fatally dismembered by a sword (in Vegeta’s first case) are real threats with real consequences.

Episode 35, Krillin threatens Vegeta with a sword. This moment, in the TV show, is acknowledged seriously and resolved in terms of real life.

However, as the story expands, the characters get stronger and stronger and quickly we lose our sense of reality. By episode 78 we have our first fighting power level (the universal measure of a character’s strength) of 1,000,000, a number which I think more than anything is usually employed to describe an amount beyond human understanding. This power level is reached by Freezer, one of the show’s most iconic arch-villains, who happens to be an alien who can not only destroy entire planets with a single attack, breathe in the vacuum of space, but also survive being dismembered by an energy disc in episode 104 (remember that in episode 35 Vegeta was about to be dismembered and killed by a regular metal sword, but was spared).

Freezer is sliced by his own attack…
…but does not die. This moment is outside of the realm of human experience.

Before Freezer, we had villains like Vegeta, who, though powerful, also had weaknesses and were characters with depth. With Freezer, the precedent was set for villains who had no depth, who all fit the “Evil Chaotic” mold in the Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Chart. The Joker in the world of Batman fits this mold as well: a villain with vague origins, who simply IS evil beyond any analysis, and exists only to destroy life. Where to go from there? Sharky waters loom.

The Android and Cell Sagas that followed took the same mold of Chaotic Evil villain and erased any possible remaining weaknesses. The Androids had unlimited energy (they could shoot energy beams all day long), and most notably, Cell possessed all of the heroes’ moves, including the ability to regenerate entire portions of his body. So much for dismemberment. Now, the only way to destroy Cell (all understood) was to completely vaporize him with an energy wave. That, to me, is the ki equivalent of proclaiming a power level of one million: it signals that we are beyond the scale of human understanding.

A single cell survives Cell’s self-destruction, and undergoes mitosis to restore his body.

In episode 189, even after self-destructing (!), one of Cell’s cells survives and mitotically restores him to his fighting form. He returns to the battlefield and charges up one last energy wave to destroy Earth as we know it, but is miraculously defeated (for real this time) by Goku’s son Gohan, with an almost identical energy wave.

Two energy waves collide.
Cell is completely vaporized by an energy wave, and destroyed for good.

But there remained something deeply unsatisfying in that vaporization of Cell. It felt like DBZ had painted itself into a corner. By creating an all-powerful, multidimensional, self-regenerating, alien-android hybrid supervillain, the show had to resort to nothing short of a cataclysm to make the good guys win. It was dealing in things beyond real human experience. It had jumped the shark. For the remainder of the show, the villains repeated this basic mold, and the battles became too huge to connect with.

The energy waves in DBZ even resemble the beam that Wonder Woman absorbs and fires back at Ares: a linear, bright blue, plasma-like beam which, presumably like gamma radiation, simply vaporizes whatever it passes through. Was it even necessary for Wonder Woman to have this epic CGI battle with Ares? How do you follow that up? Will Wonder Woman’s enemy in the next movie be just a glowing cloud or omniscient God which so many Marvel villains seem to take the form of (see: Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; X:Men Apocalypse; Dormammu in Dr. Strange)? Wasn’t it exciting enough when she ran out into no man’s land and headlong into machine gun fire? Couldn’t the movie have made that the only battle scene? There felt to be more at stake in that first battle scene, precisely because the consequences were still within the realm of real human history and experience.

Introduce CGI villains with no apparent weaknesses at your own risk, because then you leave yourself no choice but to jump the shark, and splash right into the tepid pool of chlorinated water you yourself have filled.

What your tennis court surface says about you

Though the ITF recognizes a bunch of different tennis court surfaces, for simplicity I’ve chosen to only discuss the three major surfaces represented by the four Grand Slam tournaments. Scores after every passage are on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.

The “No Line” Court; World Team Tennis

GRASS COURTS: You are a purist. You enjoy tennis the way you enjoy a gin martini or a Japanese rock garden: traditional, tranquil, and as nature intended. Your most valued athletic qualities are agility, balance, and creativity– the quieter the atmosphere, the shorter the points, the more you feel like you’re witnessing something that’s been around since the dawn of time. However, you overlook that this is false nostalgia: grass courts and lawns in general are not pure nature, they are humankind’s aborted and artificially manicured image of nature. In fact, the great tradition of most British lawn sports (golf, cricket, croquet, bowling, even billiards) involves a disproportionately large area of land being occupied by a disproportionately small number of people for a disproportionately long period of time. You cling to the glory of past empires, when land ownership was the prime signifier of wealth. Nonetheless, this clinginess also means you value sportsmanship, civility, and the rule of law. You are a proud minority.

Predictability: ***

Maintenance: *****

Rain Resilience: *

Chance of Injury: ***

HARD COURTS: You are enterprising and resourceful. Eager to get the job done, you set out for modern, pragmatic solutions that make sense to you, the everyman, rather than the tried-and-true formulas of unknown origin. Your most valued athletic qualities are power and charisma. Instead of pretending to control nature, you wipe it out entirely, replacing it with something simpler. However, in prioritizing short-term gains, you willfully ignore the inevitable moment when nature reclaims its domain. At that moment you will be forced to replace your replacement of nature, since it is patently inflexible and impossible to maintain. But this is the New World Order, where there are clear boundaries between opposites, like hot and cold, black and white, mine and yours, fit and injured… Hell with your body. The road to heaven is paved with concrete… and topped with a fine acrylic membrane.

Predictability: ****

Maintenance (short term): *

Maintenance (long term): *****

Rain Resilience: **

Chance of Injury: ****

CLAY COURTS: You are unpretentious and open-minded. Taking inspiration from the Earth itself, you strive for a solution that is soft, carefully layered, undeceptive, and encourages the user to maintain it him or herself (as opposed to hired staff) using basic tools. Your most valued athletic qualities are grit and patience. You often refer to your work in nuanced terms, unable to single out a superlative weapon or a preferred pattern, rather utilizing the full range of terms: power, speed, stamina, intelligence…. Minor impositions of nature such as drizzle, unpredictable bounces, or laundry do not bother you. In fact, these assets make you quite adaptable and attractive to many climates and cultures around the world, especially poorer ones. Moreover, most of the world’s best grew up playing on clay. You are global. But this also means you suffer from a crisis of identity: are you red clay, crushed brick, metabasalt, or sand? Are you old school, or the future? Are you popular, or imposing yourself? Are you original, or living in compromise?

Predictability: **

Maintenance: ***

Rain Resilience: ****

Chance of Injury: **

Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal; Battle of the Surfaces; May 2007

References, for fun:

http://grantland.com/features/the-physics-grass-clay-cement/

http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~kinshuk/tennis/

http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2017/02/16/bjsports-2016-097050

http://www.clayfricktennis.org/ClayWorld.html

Clocks [excerpt]

“Jackie, that’s my daughter’s name. She just left for college in Europe. Wasn’t half a decade before we were best buddies, her in middle school, me working 20 hour weeks. That’s the time every kid starts to beat her dad at everything. Always been giving her sports to play and riddles to solve. First to the top of the tree, fastest to eat a hamburger, how much wood can a woodchuck chuck… or like this one I made up, as we sat watching the San Antonio River outside our house back in Floresville:

“Hey, Jackie. You see that shadow of the tree on the water? Is the shadow moving?”

Jackie smiled. “Of course not! The river is moving, but the shadow isn’t. Easy trick question.” She threw a pebble into the river, and it passed right through the tree trunk.

I smiled back. “Wrong. It is moving. Because the sun is moving. All shadows move, just very slowly.”

Jackie’s smile changed into a sneer. “That was a trick-trick question.”

Teenagers hate being trick-tricked. Especially when the trick is slowness, since as far as she was concerned the world wasn’t spinning fast enough. Soon enough the time came that she started solving my riddles, throwing the football farther, eating more hamburgers.

We set up an obstacle course in the yard with tires, ladders, and took turns completing it as fast as possible, while the other timed with my wristwatch. Jackie went first and finished it in 55 seconds. Then I went. I stumbled to the finish, touching the wall of our house and nearly smashing a hole in it.

“Geez Louise!”

“56 seconds!” Jackie yelped.

“Wait,” I huffed. “That can’t be. I was counting in my head, I got 55.”

“No. I got the watch. I was counting ticks, and I got 56 ticks.”

Well, here was an old man’s moment to prove he was still smarter than his kid.

“That’s wrong, Jac. A second is the amount of time in between ticks. So if you counted 56 ticks, that means 55 seconds.”

“No, you’re wrong, dad. The seconds are the ticks!”

“What, you think that a second is the amount of time it takes for the hand to jump from one tick to the next? Those don’t matter. We count the pauses in between those, in between the jumps.”

But she wasn’t hearing me. “It’s the total opposite! A second is the time it takes the hand to jump from one tick to the next.”

“Come on, Jackie, you know that’s not true. Look for yourself.” I showed her the watch.

“Yeah! One, two, three… that’s the seconds! You’re just being a sore loser.”

We went back and forth for another five minutes. She went inside. Normally she’d come around by dinnertime, but this one got her goat for the rest of they day. Next thing I knew she started high school, outside town, came home every day with hours of homework, weekends she spent with new friends, boyfriends, then summer camps. That was really the last summer we spent together. Though I’m sure she forgot that argument completely, I still shouldn’t’ve used the word true with her.

When she left I suddenly had so much free time I thought the world stopped spinning. Surely your folks had the same, huh? What’s a man like me to do, aside from take a trip somewhere? Came here, sent my ex-wife an email, tried to see if she still lived here. But she never answered. One day my legs couldn’t take the walking no more and I just collapsed onto a bench in front of a church. There was a park behind me and kids were playin’. Above the entry to the church, where you normally got a stained glass window, there was a big round carving, of one of those Aztec Gods. Body of a snake, head of a man, wrapped in a spiral, and the scales of the snake body had letters or numbers next to ‘em. In the middle of the spiral there was a metal rod stickin’ straight out. Then outta nowhere a man walks up to me holding a plastic chain and starts to talkin’ in Spanish about some trick he was gonna do, and raising his eyebrows at me, and I had to tell him no thank you ‘bout five times before he left. I fell asleep for a while. When I woke up I had no idea what time it was, till I looked up at the church. The shadow of the metal rod had moved from one scale on the snake body to another. By God, I realized I was lookin’ at a sundial. That’s when I realized that Jackie was right. We were both right. Some clocks got jumpin’ hands, and a second is the pause between jumps, but some clocks got smooth movin’ hands, like that sundial, and a second is the slow jump from one tick to the next. A second is the jump.

 

Placing

In my version of the Hippocratic Oath for architects (which I decided should be called the Vitruvian Oath), I noticed a challenge: if architects and doctors are equals, what is the former’s analog for “healing” and “sick?” What is the core action, the operative verb, without which architecture wouldn’t exist?

Not an easy question to answer. Thinking about it only for a second, one realizes that “sheltering” may be the closest thing (which I chose to use), but that word is like a machete to most of the profession. Essentially any architectural endeavor that is cultural, commercial, industrial, sculptural, outdoors (that is, not residential) is excluded.

So what could the core principle be then? Doug Patt, with his book How To Architect, makes a strong case for turning the word “architect” into a verb, and using that. But I think this is heavy-handed, and brings up another problem which is teaching the layperson what “architecting” even implies. No, one must find a word that already has meaning to the Average Joe. I propose “placing.” That is: cultivating a sense of place for an inhabitant. For Average Joe, what does “being placed” mean? It means an awareness of and connection to one’s environment, a desire to visit it and participate in its life after construction, a pride and pleasure in it. This definition would include all types of works: outdoor & indoor, renovations & new construction, cultural & infrastructural, permanent & temporary, monumental & incremental, and all the rest.

The core question an architect should ask is “is my solution cultivating a sense of place for the people it will affect?” The Vitruvian Oath would then read something like:

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unplaced… may I long experience the joy of placing those who seek my help.

I could get used to that.

The Hippocratic Oath, for Architects

Doctors and architects all too often lumped together as roommates in the penthouse of the apartment building of educated society. One particular quality they share is the obligation to serve the public, to improve the livelihoods of others. Doctors, for various reasons, are more front and center in the eyes of the very society they serve than architects. Part of this is that life-and-death struggles are laid more bare in the emergency room than in the design studio– which makes doctors’ stories easier to transform into soap operas and other commercial enterprises. But part of it comes from the inside– doctors, upon receiving their MD, must take a verbal oath. This oath was originally conceived by Hippocrates in Hellenic Greece, and has taken various forms, the most common of which was written by Louis Lasagna in the 1960s. I won’t write it out here, for reasons below, but it’s available on the Johns Hopkins website (where Lasagna was Dean at the time he wrote his version of the oath).

It begs the question: why do doctors have this oath, and architects don’t? The latter are certainly made exhaustively aware of the responsibility because printed versions of this oath, none of them official, cross your eye at every stage of the path to licensure. Are architects too shy? Not a chance. Louis Sullivan and Hugh Hardy, who have each taught me quite a few things, brought a performative quality to their work. Sullivan lectured broadly and bombastically on this topic of architects’ code of conduct one hundred years ago. Hardy was a glittering personality who always sought to bring out the theatrical qualities of architecture– in both the built form and the emotions of its inhabitants. It remains a mystery why an official version of an architect’s implicit code of public conduct is missing from our records, and why we never take an oath.

It therefore occurred to me to simply write one, in the exact mold of Lasagna’s Hippocratic Oath. Below is that same oath, with certain words replaced and emphasized to address architecture instead of medicine.

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those architects in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the unsheltered, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overdesign and cookie-cutter solutions.

I will remember that there is art to architecture as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the architect’s pen or the engineer’s calculator.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a problem’s solution.

I will respect the privacy of my clients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to build something, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to demolish something; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not serve a floor plan, a contract, but an unsheltered human being, whose dreams may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the unsheltered.

I will conserve the existing environment whenever I can, for conservation is preferable to replacement.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unsheltered.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of sheltering those who seek my help.

“Unsheltered” here was used to replace “sick,” “infirm,” and terms like that. It might sound funny because the reality for some architects is the design of housing for the already-sheltered (high-end residential, I’m looking at you)– but I think this oath helps remind us of the “public service” part that is fundamental to the practice. Providing shelter is really the leading candidate for the most essential, basic service that architecture provides. High-end residential may be lucrative, but one should use it as a vehicle to get to design public housing. See Alexander Gorlin.

Many might recoil at the idea of taking a verbal oath, because it smacks of religion, of adherence to a belief or dogma, a notion that many young people today are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. In response to that niggle, I invoke David Foster Wallace. In his wonderful commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College called This Is Water, he said:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

I find it very hard to participate in this complex yet organized society, much less ascend to the higher, more respected, and burdensome positions in it, without having chosen something to steady the rudder, be a guiding light, or whatever metaphor you wish to use. I would say that, for the most part, architects already carry this guiding principle in their minds. The only difference I’m proposing is for some ceremony to exist, just like the MD’s donning of the white coats or the hand-on-heart when becoming a naturalized citizen. A ceremony would give the architect community some extra glue, and remind us of the responsibility we all share.

Lastly, what should this oath be called? The Hestian Oath? The Vitruvian Oath? The Sullivan Oath?

Shoot the Cartoonist

Already some time ago I discovered the joy of observational freehand drawing. Aside from benefiting my mentality (I can count it as meditation) and its use as a learning tool as I observe the physical world, drawing opens channels to engage the people around me. The cold stoicism of modern strangers melts away when they see me drawing, especially when I draw portraits. They approach with curiosity, and often a conversation will start. When a subject sees me drawing them, they immediately fix their posture, smile, and continue what they were doing with a gently glowing pride. Last week in Alameda Central I was drawing celebrities from memory when a meek ten-year-old boy approached me, with two or three of his friends behind him, and complimented my sketches. I said thanks and asked him if he drew. He said he did a little, so I invited him to do one in my sketchbook. It was of Emiliano Zapata. I tore it out and let him keep it—his smile was so broad as he walked off that it touched his friends’ shoulders. Whenever I go to a bar I sketch a portrait of the bartender on the back of the customer receipt (which I never keep) and leave it with the bill. With just a little more effort on my part (surprise, surprise), I can break down barriers!

It didn’t come to me easily. Like many my age, I came to art through photography, which is a younger, more technologically advanced medium (that is to say, it’s much more convenient for the user), but which in contrast carries much more baggage. To begin with, it’s an impersonal gesture to lift a black box to your face, putting it in between you and someone else, blocking the possibility for direct eye contact. We know of the superstition that being photographed is an intrusion onto the soul. This belief is reflected in the baked-in metaphors we use to describe the act: “To take a photograph.” “Sacar una foto.” These verbs imply an extraction from the “real world,” never to be given back. In 2002, the year I took up photography seriously and exchanged my iPhone for a Minolta X-700, I visited Guatemala with my parents. We took a ferry across Lake Atitlán to tiny Panajachel on the north shore, whereupon disembarking we were greeted by a local woman selling souvenirs for quetzales on the dollar. Instead of buying or even responding I raised my camera to take a photo, and immediately she wrapped her free arm around her four-year-old daughter and turned her back to me. In an instant, in front of everyone else on the boat and the villagers on the dock, I had changed the mood from optimistic to sullen. I felt like a bad human being. If it had been ten years later, I would have instead taken out my sketchbook, gotten a smile, a pose, and maybe even a compliment. I could have given the woman 5 quetzales to pose for me for 5 minutes, then I could have sold it to someone for 20.

Though the art establishment (that is, the faction of society that has looked at this from all angles and analyzed it to death) has decreed that neither drawing nor photography have license to the truth, that neither is extracting something from the world any more than the other, there are qualities of the latter that simply don’t sit well with the human intellect. Because our species is so dependent on, indebted to, and entrapped by its sense of sight, it is difficult to convince oneself that a photograph is not a product of our own vision, but something so comparatively rudimentary, so mechanical (with mirrors, chambers, hinges, and electric signals), that the only justification for its existence is the creative impulse. The internal debate rages on between our intellect and our instincts, and it’s our own fault for inventing so deceptive a medium.

Drawing, in the meantime, has for ages remained comfortable in the middle ground where I think art should reside: between reaping a fruit that nature has spent time cultivating on the one hand, and inventing a fruit supplement in the laboratory on the other. I discovered this after paying a man in Central Park to do my mother’s portrait for her birthday. Not only did he do it swiftly and accurately, he then became my teacher. As a matter of fact, I should be grateful to photography, because it has taken over the role of documentation (and the scrutiny that comes with it) for which drawing used to be responsible (the vestiges of which are found, for example, in the portrait etchings in The Wall Street Journal). Where before kings and presidents had to commission a life-sized painting for their official portrait, they can now come into Annie Leibovitz’s studio, pose for 15 minutes, and be done. Humans are much more comfortable encountering something unknown than they are coping with the loss of something they knew.

This is not an indictment of photography—I just had to outline certain problems that it can’t seem to get rid of in order to highlight the ease with which those same problems dissolve with drawing. When all I want to do is record the characters of the world, their bumps and curves, doing so in pen and paper is my E-ZPass around these modern existential complications.

So there I was, in the Jardín de la Bombilla in south-central Mexico City on a hot March afternoon, drawing the cleaning personnel with their medieval straw brooms, dogs, children eating mangoes, the monument towering like the Taj Mahal at the end of the fountains, and stout security guards (the latter have always been my favorite, partially because their expressions never change, but especially because I visit a lot of museums and sketching an on-duty security guard in a well-lit room of Renaissance paintings feels like poking a sedated lion in its own den). Suddenly I noticed that one guard was slowly approaching me. She stopped in front of me and then spoke an order I had never heard in my life:

“Young man, I need to ask you to stop drawing, or leave the park.”

All of the Spanish responses I had been preparing in my head shriveled up, and I had to stare dumbly at her for a moment while I divined something to say.

“What do you mean?” I finally managed, “I’m not doing anything wrong or illegal.”

At this point, according to normal security guard protocol, she would have simply repeated the order, and would have continued repeating it no matter how I protested until her patience ended, leading to the last step which is physical enforcement. However, another astounding thing happened. Rosa (as her nametag said) looked down at my drawings, and her expression softened. She threw the prepared responses out of her head, and told me the following story.

“Listen, do you see that monument there? Do you see “OBREGÓN” written above the door? Do you know who that is? Álvaro Obregón was first a general in the revolution, and then president. He had many famous battles, like against Pancho Villa and the División del Norte, and lost his arm in the war. He was for the separation of church and state, like you have in the United States. But maybe as you know, we are very Catholic in this country, so the resistance to that separation was very strong. On July 17, 1928, Obregón was having lunch in a restaurant that was located exactly in this park, called La Bombilla, when a cartoonist approached him and offered to draw his portrait. The cartoonist’s name was José de León Toral. Obregón saw the beginning sketches and gave the man a seat at his table. When none of the deputies were paying attention, the cartoonist pulled out a pistol and shot Obregón five times in the face. He was executed soon after. Obregón was given a state funeral and this area was made into a park to remember him….”

Rosa had finished the story already some moments ago but I sat in silence. It dawned on me that this harmless act, to her, signaled danger. In fact, it was its harmlessness which made it so insidious, since cartoons are never judged on photo-accuracy (a great retronym) but by the strength of the caricature. I wondered how it had been remembered that the assassin posed specifically as a “cartoonist” (I couldn’t imagine he announced it out loud), but it’s possible that detail wrote itself. José de León Toral used my E-ZPass to gain access to his mark. Since this story was probably as known to Mexicans as the name John Wilkes Booth was to Americans, I suddenly found myself reinterpreting all of the looks I received these past weeks in Mexico City’s parks, cafes, and museums. Were all of those passers-by quietly frightened, but ultimately held silent by common sense or self-disgust? Did their paranoia just seem too far-fetched and disconnected, until this day when I chose to draw in the lion’s den? Was it like the collective rejection of the mosque that was planned down the street from Ground Zero in Manhattan? I had many questions. But the only one I managed was, “Does the drawing of Obregón still exist?”

Rosa’s eyes remained soft. “In fact, yes.”

At my request she wrote the address and directions in a blank corner of my sketchbook. I thanked her, apologized for the disturbance, and got up to leave, before she stopped me and held a page open—the page where I had drawn her some time ago.

“That’s pretty good,” she said. “May I have it?”

I thought for a moment, then said, “15 pesos.”

There was still time in the day to take the metro to Balderas which is directly in front of the Biblioteca de México. I knew where I was going—down the central passageway, left at the Octavio Paz Patio, through the airport-like Galería Abraham Zabludovsky, under its northwest arcade, and into the wooden room housing the personal library of Mexico’s darling writer, Carlos Monsiváis (all places in which I had sat and drawn before). Just inside the room, before passing the front desk, there is an enormous wooden cabinet with a broad display case housing the tip of the iceberg of knickknacks that Monsiváis, a known hoarder, collected. I had only glanced at it before, but that day I stopped for the first time. After a minute of searching, I found it. Still in the original leather sketchbook, held precariously upright and open by an unexplained action figure of a cat, there was the fated sketch. Álvaro Obregón looking out at me from his comfortable dining chair. Or was it him? His clothing was unclearly rendered, lacking any defining marks of a president-elect and former general, the eyes were too narrow, the arms too long… behind him there was no indication of place, only blank paper… his right leg was entirely unfinished, ending at the calf with a hurried twirl, which killed the relationship of figure to ground… there were no tags or descriptions of any individual pieces (partially because there were too many of them)… I thought that if it weren’t for the tip from Rosa, I would never have guessed that this was Obregón at all. I had looked up the president on the way to the library—with his sharp eyes, paunch, hairline, and moustache, doing a good caricature would have been kid’s play. My worst competitive instincts came to the surface, and pulling out my sketchbook I made my own quick cartoon of Obregón (aware of the security guard lurking in the corner) to compare.

So maybe José de León Toral just wasn’t a good artist. Chillingly, this was only 20 years after Adolf Hitler was rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Despite the best efforts of the establishment, it seems bad art manages to creep into the history books one way or another.

Uncharted Territory dot com

In man’s early years, he had still to occupy the entirety of the globe, on top of which he didn’t even know how much of the world was still unoccupied. Imagine: knowing your territory, but facing a frontier at all sides. How much further does it go? How big would primitive man have imagined the uncharted territory to be? With respect to this unknown unknown, those early times were correspondingly quite violent. Wars and genocide were constantly going on as men coped with the conflicting notions of discovering the world and sharing it with others.

Over time, the discovery was made that the world was round, and humankind swiftly moved to occupy it all. Wholly overtaking the planet, closing the loop, is an act that justifies itself. It ties the knot of discovery within a perfect package. Our unconscious must have felt immense relief circa the Enlightenment. Though we still have wars and genocide, violent deaths connected to the control of territory are decreasing, now that that territory is no longer unknown. We comfortably analyze the violence of the past as primitive and barbaric.

However, humankind’s drive to seek new frontiers is insatiable. Sometimes, when the frontier is either unseen or unfeasibly remote (like the bottom of the ocean or deep space), we resort to creating new frontiers ourselves. The latest example of this is the internet. The world wide web is a brand new world, also full of uncharted territory. Notice, too, how our exploration of that world has reverted us back to our violent past. We are turning against each other because we have become unknown to each other once again.

Do we create worlds because we strive for the thrill of creation, or for the thrill of discovery? Do those impulses overshadow the artificiality of our surroundings? Does that thrill cheaply distract us from more difficult undertakings, like learning to get along with each other?

Fixing a hole

A model lives and dies just like the building it poses for. It’s preceded by dreams and drawings and logistics and a budget and a construction schedule…….. and of course a sharp drop in market value shortly after its completion. After that the name of the game is either find a can of spraypaint and a prominent shelf, or be dismantled for parts.

Learning to build a physical model is also learning how a building gets physically put together, though this is never emphasized. Without realizing it, I’ve been the Architect, Owner, GC, and Building Super of a hundred microcosmic architectural works throughout the past decade.

I was part way through building a light fixture model at half scale when I realized a problem: scoring & folding 1/2″ thick foamcore, while stable, exposes the crackling foam innards inside valleys with gaping shadowlines which at this scale can no longer be ignored. If the thickness of a sheet of museum board telescopes through a site model of a house, no one is expected to ask annoying questions about whether you actually intend for that joint to be part of the design. But I’ll be a dog if they don’t ask it of the 1/2″ vales and glens I’ve now proposed in their light fixture… which is another annoyance: every single thing you present to a client can be assumed to be your “proposal,” and boy does it irk me when they say things like “so, are you proposing the walls to be this color?” “So, are you proposing the walls to be made out of foam?” No, assface, I am not. We got two realities overlapping here in this model, you better get your 3D glasses on or stop asking dumb questions.

Back at my model, in deft anticipation of those questions that would inevitably happen, and already sweating about it, I had a choice about fixing the holes: I could either cover them with a thin layer of paper before painting, or I could fill them with joint compound. Now this may seem like a simple choice, resolved based on what’s around me and how much time I have, but at the root of it is actually an important distinction. If I went with the former, I would be doing something that would never happen in real life, only in the life of this microcosmic architectural work. If I went with the latter, I would be mimicking the actual contractor as he troweled paste into all the cracks when the eventual GFRG emerges from the mold. This, then, is the distinction between “model” and “mockup.” And I reached for the joint compound, because I had to treat this object as closely to its final form as I reasonably could.

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Despite of all this, however, there was a diagram on the back of the container that said not to use it for surface imperfections deeper than 1/8″.

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Dammit.