Deconstruction

February 4, 2009 Economics, Sustainability, Technology Comments (2) 1055

The words we use in everyday life tend to be casual and unfortunately, that means the concepts they embody can also get sloppy. In the field of fixing up old buildings the terms “renovate,” “remodel,” “rehabilitate,” “preserve,” and even “restore” are used interchangeably, even though the latter three terms have fairly precise definitions and guidelines for their practice promulgated by the Secretary of the Interior. Those guidelines are not interchangeable and it is a very different thing to “preserve” a building rather than “rehabilitate: it. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we use “preserve” to mean “save from demolition,” even if the final treatment of the property is (as it almost always is) rehabilitation.

Now, in the era of sustainability, a similar casual conversational confusion may lead to causal conundrums. The goal of the historic preservation movement, broadly, is the reuse of historic buildings. This is very different from the recycling of buildings, but in conservation, as in preservation, we have been lazy with our terminology. Continue Reading

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schools and sustainability

January 9, 2009 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments (1) 1151

Illinois is one of six states working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the US Environmental Protection Agency to develop policy on sustainable school siting. What’s that? Well, basically, for years we have been building new schools out in cornfields and letting old ones closer to where people live go to waste, or worse. This is being done through the Lt. Governor’s office, so participation is free (Ba-Dum-Dum!) and you can either attend a big symposium on the topic in Joliet on February 27 or just submit comments to http://www.standingupforillinois.org/green/school_siting.php.

The issue is sustainability, but it is also preservation. I recently looked at an old Sanborn map of Oak Park – from the 1920s and 30s. It was amazing how much was exactly the same. Over 90% of Oak Park’s single-family homes date from before 1939 and that was evident from the map – you could still use it to identify most of the residential buildings. The exceptions were a few (surprisingly few) commercial areas and some of the 1960s apartment highrises along the railroad tracks. And the schools. This was the one resource COMPLETELY altered in the last 70 years – schools. Continue Reading

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Obama Economic stimulus: getting it right

December 7, 2008 Economics, Sustainability Comments (0) 1237

Yesterday President-elect Barack Obama announced a massive jobs stimulus package for the economy, which many have compared to Dwight Eisenhower’s federal highway building program of a half-century ago. While the scale of the comparison may be apt, it is essential that Obama’s team makes this a 21st century stimulus and not a repeat of the 1950s.
Investment in roads and infrastructure seems like a good thing, but there are limitations. Highway building only produces half the economic spinoff of building rehabilitation – preservation – for example. The reasons why are easy to see: it is a machine-and-material based job that kicks a lot of cash to concrete and surfacers. The ratio between labor and materials/machines is not nearly as favorable as building rehabilitation. Continue Reading

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Sustainability in China

June 29, 2008 China Preservation, Sustainability Comments (2) 1334

A long day around the conference table with copious cups of green tea and hearty discussions about how we are going to try to convince Yunnan officials that their efforts at sustainability in Gaoligongshan National Park and historic Weishan city need work. We spent several days touring the sights, which was fun for me since I had never seen Gaoligongshan, an amazing national park with incredible biodiversity. We also saw the progress in Weishan, where I was VERY gratified to see the restoration on the Dong Yue temple, which our students worked on four years ago. Continue Reading

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New Orleans IV

January 27, 2008 Sustainability, Technology Comments (0) 1273

I’m here at the National Trust Board meetings in New Orleans, which is as potent and colorful a mix of culture as the drinks being swilled from plastic billabongs along Bourbon Street. I always thought Mardi Gras was a day, but here it is a couple of weeks. We have, of course, toured Holy Cross and the Lower Ninth and Lakeview to see the excellent work the Trust and others have been doing restoring houses partially wrecked in the man-made disaster following Katrina, and while many of my colleagues were impressed by the progress after 2 1/2 years, I – not having seen it before – was still amazed by how wrecked some of it looked. In 1874 no one noticed the fire that had burned down Chicago in 1871, but in 2008 the path of aftermath Katrina flooding is quite clear in this landscape. Continue Reading

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Huge Fact

December 14, 2007 Economics, Sustainability Comments (0) 1363

Dick Moe, President of the National Trust made a FANTASTIC speech last night on the occasion of receiving the Vincent Scully Prize at the National Building Museum. The basic point: “Preservation IS Sustainability” This is obvious stuff to those of us who deal with old buildings – they have embodied energy and if we want to slow down climate change, we need to save buildings. Dick had some killer statistics which again are obvious if you think about it. An excerpt from Moe’s speech:

“But according to the EPA, transportation – cars, trucks, trains, airplanes – accounts for just 27% of America‚s greenhouse gas emissions, while 48% – almost twice as much – is produced by the construction and operation of buildings. If you remember nothing else I say tonight, remember this: Nearly half of the greenhouse gases we Americans send into the atmosphere comes from our buildings. In fact, more than 10% of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions is produced by America’s buildings – but the current debate on climate change does not come close to reflecting that huge fact. The message is clear: Any solution to climate change must address the need to reduce emissions by being smarter about how we use our buildings and wiser about land use.” Continue Reading

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Modern Mischief

June 24, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments Off on Modern Mischief 1347

Jack Hartray was one of five “Mid-Century Modern” architects who spoke at the opening event of the Illinois Preservation Conference last week. Always an enjoyable speaker, Hartray mentioned that Gropius and the modernist masters of the Mid-20th-Century created a lot of “mischief” with a seemingly mischief-free command: make the building do what the client wants.

In a sense, this is the restatement of Louis Sullivan’s “Form Follows Function” and a central tenet of all modernist architectural thinking from the 1890s to the 1960s. But the “mischief” identified by Hartray was a classic failing in the hyper-aware three-dimensional art of modern architecture: the failure to appreciate the fourth dimension: Time. Even in the Time-Life Building. Continue Reading

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Sustainability vs. Architecture

March 5, 2007 Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1135

This building was built for Lord Vishnu – The Preserver.

You hear a lot about sustainability in architecture and “green” design. Sustainability has become a holy word in urban design and architecture circles. If you wanted to build something in the 1960s, you talked about Progress. If you want to build something in the 1970s or 80s you talked about Community and Diversity. If you want to build something today, invoke the goddess Sustainability. Continue Reading

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Jane Jacobs Dead

April 27, 2006 Historic Districts, History, Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1303

Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities whupped the ass of the architectural and planning establishment, has died. Jacobs wrote until the end of her life, just a week before her 90th birthday, but that first book was the barn-burner. “A city cannot be a work of art.” She said, and italicized it to make sure we got the point. The city is organic, said Jacobs. You can’t plan it.

Jacobs emerged as a community activist who took down (an already wounded) Robert Moses and launched the concept that neighbors had a right to say how their neighborhood looked and what should go in it. A fifty-year history of urban planning as an elite, expert enterprise ended on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village when Jacobs systematically disemboweled the “Radiant Garden City” of Howard, Burnham, LeCorbusier and Moses.

A housewife and mother who pulled apart the metalogic of urban planning. She wasn’t just against urban renewal – she understood it better than its proponents. My favorite part of Death and Life –which I assigned in my seminar this semester – is near the end when she exposes the pseudo-science of urban planning. Twenty years earlier Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture had trumpeted modern architecture and planning as an expression of the new Einsteinian understanding of space and time. Jacobs exposed this as a rank falsehood. Continue Reading

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Sustainability

March 13, 2006 Sustainability, Technology Comments (0) 1189

Image: Convent Avenue south of 145th Street, Manhattan, last Saturday. By Felicity Rich.

Sustainability is the hot word in architectural circles, even being added to the architectural curricular guidelines at the behest of the AIA. Is it just six syllables for “green,” or an updating of Vitruvian firmitas? I think it means something about recycling and not polluting, about a building that tries to do more than just suck petroleum and spew carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, like “green,” sustainability has become a buzzword, which means it has become a fashion, which means it has become a huckster’s tool to sell stuff. You can buy “green” and you can buy “organic” and you can buy “shade grown” and “fair trade”, so why not buy “sustainable?”

Because “sustainable” is about not buying. It is about NOT buying. Continue Reading

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