Monday, August 27, 2007

Move In

There it was, the line of cars, all idling along 13th street. In them, piles of clothes, plastic bins, posters and expectant parents. Move-in had arrived at NYU.

It has been a long time since my own move-in. Eight years since I was that newly minted high schooler, embarking on college life. My move was a cross-country affair, limiting the amount of stuff I could bring on an airplane. (At least it was before the luggage restrictions of today’s friendly skies) It was with two suitcases in hand that I made my way to my freshman room dorm. Not much beyond clothes came along for the journey.

So I marveled at what came out of those minivans and SUVs that processed to the front doors of the NYU dorms. Like a clown car, where surreal numbers emerge from an impossibly small space, piles of things poured out. Pillows and sheets, musical instruments and lamps, computers, TVs, music systems, microwaves, mirrors and the odd stuffed animal – out they came, in plastic bags and suitcases, parents and siblings struggling under the weight of their college student’s over-stuffed cargo.


Despite the knowledge that a nomad life lies ahead, college students seem hell-bent on making sure that their dorm rooms effectively capture who they wish to be. The fresh start, the freedom, seems to exacerbate the need to individualize their new habitat, if only temporarily.

Ingenuity becomes the name of the game. With the strict policies leveled by universities over what can change, what must be returned in “original” condition, what can be attached to walls, ceilings, furniture, and what not, you quickly discover the available alternatives for making things stick. I believe 3M has created an entire product line for just such occasions. And with your blue wads of gummy adhesive, up go the things, both sentimental and cliché, which, despite your hopes of individuality, are likely going up on walls of universities and colleges all around the country. Trust me.

And yet, every fall, the same process inevitably repeats. Stores prepare for the rush, salivate at the numbers which will swarm their aisles for the latest in dorm accoutrements. Funky drawers and book cases, mirrors to hang on doors, colorful pillows or beanbags, a carpet or two – all bought by frantic parents in a chaotic spending spree. All done so that their soon to be adult children can shape their space, leave their mark, claim some ownership of their rented digs.

I have to admit that, beyond a photo frame or two, I left much of my room bare. It was an accurate reflection of my connection to my room. I mean, I slept there, maybe studied there late at night. But as I mentioned before, most of the time, I was across campus, hunkered over my drafting board, sweating under the heat of a western setting sun. My R.A. went so far as to informally disown me from the floor; as he put it, I was never around anyways.

Looking back, I see that the lack of connection between me and my dorm room was reflective of my general attitude towards school. I was disconnected throughout much of my first year, stuck between my dreams of escape and my refusal to believe that my college plans had not work out as I had imagined. I moved to college with a dreaded sense of inevitability – as though I had no other choice but to go and see. Excitement wasn’t really a part of my state of mind.

I remember vividly my first weekend after orientation. A friend from the summer was going shopping with her new roommate and invited me a long. Over the course of three hours, I watched these two girls buy matching glasses, plates, with complimentary sheets, a couple of throw pillows and floor rugs. They had thoroughly planned this shopping trip, sketched out, in detail, how they would decorate their new room together. Colors, accessories, the location of a new, full length mirror. We had no sooner arrived back at their room, bags in hand, than they began to unpack their space, moving the just purchased items to their appropriate “homes”. I knew right then that these two girls would be friends and roommates for the rest of school.

That should have been a revelation for my own frame of mind, but alas, I only recognized the importance of shaping my space later, about one year before I left my home in the ‘Burgh for my cross-Atlantic trek. It was only then did I feel settled, as though I had finally created a home for myself. Leaving it was hard.


So, maybe it is with a twinge of jealousy that I watched those happy kids, their piles of stuff in tow. They are off to create memories, good and bad, of a place they will inhabit only temporarily. And I hope that they do make it their own, if only for a year. Because the more it means to them, I believe, the better time they will have. A reminder to anyone that architecture is as much about the space created as it is the users who will occupy it.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

It's Not Easy....Being Green

Green is good. And this time, it’s not the paper kind.

If we go by magazines, news articles, and of course, a large music concert that brings together a disparate cast of musicians for a night of “celebration and awareness”, the new cool of our age is environmental responsibility. Saving the planet hasn’t had this much cache since hippies roamed the earth.

This rising interest in “green” is surprising to me, since environmental stewardship has been so much apart of my experience with architecture. My undergraduate school placed a strong emphasis on architecture’s impact upon the world. It wasn’t long into school before we were asked to consider how our designs could be shaped by the environment. Things like solar orientation, energy efficiency, and passive heat gain were increasingly apart of our new architecture vocabulary.

As we progressed, it became clear that our school had evolved into two equally adamant camps – those who championed an environmentally-centric approach to design, and those who wanted nothing more than to view each new building site as a tabula rasa for creative expression. Professors were easily aligned into a certain ideology, and if was often a test of wills between those who wanted nothing more than a double layer façade, raised floor systems and stacked ventilation, and those who wished us to design something ostentatious enough to birth a new architectural iconography.

Funny enough, while in school, the professors whose passions leaned towards green, were often viewed as one-track zealots, ignoring the creative opportunities one sought out in pursuing the profession of an architect. The “greenies” were dogmatic, looking for very specific elements within our design, which if lacking, would automatically mean our failure. It became a game of “find the German detail”, a lesson more in our ability to mimic the work of others than an understanding of the potential benefits of the system.

Yet, in a prophetic twist of fate, everything I learned is now de rigueur in practice today. LEED ratings are being tossed around like candy at Halloween, the most theoretical propositions now have some sort of environmental bent, and no architect, be it the local solo practitioner, or a massive factory firm, can go without at least some familiarity with the green aspects of their work. Developers are even selling based upon the “greenness” of their latest projects. I guess those hippies were just a couple decades a head of their time.

But, in the momentum of green advocacy, the fundamental question of what “being green” means has been quietly tabled. Does it mean you take the newest in technology and jam it into every project you do? Does it mean you design with a mind for the future, and even your project’s potential destruction? Is it creating the smallest carbon footprint, sourcing materials from only local suppliers, making sure everything you specify is non-toxic, recyclable and potentially organic? Does being green literally mean being green – grass roofs sprouting from every surface so that the earth you claimed is given directly back? Do you hold Cradle to Cradle as your bible, join the Green Building Alliance, and get yourself LEED certified? Maybe it is all of the above. Maybe you pick and choose. It’s anyone’s guess.

Working in retail presents a particular paradox to this whole need to be green. I work on projects whose life expectancy is, at best, 10 years – a reminder that, above all else, what I do is very much subject to trends and fads. I effectively design things that will, in all likelihood, become dumpster waste at one point in the near future. Not quite the “green-friendly” practice of architecture I learned in school.

Sure, we can specify more recycled materials, things that could easily be reconstituted into a new store, in a new location. We can design for the inevitable destruction. But it still assumes destruction, the idea that we will always have to do it over.

The thing that bothers me most about that approach is its reliance on a continual consumption of goods – that we can save ourselves from the catastrophes of climate change through the constant purchase of new things, better things, friendlier things, things that will become other things. But the emphasis is always on the replacement of things.

At my university, it is remarkable to note that the original buildings, designed and built at the turn of the 20th century, still sit on campus today. Sure, they have been reconfigured, repurposed. They have been refinished, updated, with new technologies grafted onto the bones, allowing them to meet the needs of today’s students. But they stand, adapted to the changing needs of their users. Later buildings, built at the mid-century mark? Destroyed, deemed unsalvageable, their existence covered over by the foundations of new buildings whose life spans, we hope, will be somewhat longer.

And that is, for me, an issue that never gets addressed in this rush to be green. While we think of the new and great ways to make things more energy efficient, more user friendly, more recyclable, we pass by the fundamental issue: do the products we rush to buy actually help us create things with a solid future?

Let’s face it – much of today’s architecture, be it green focused or not, has a limited shelf life. And that’s not just from an aesthetic point of view. Buildings rise and fall, that’s a given. But it seems that what has been built lately falls a lot quicker than those buildings of the past. Why that is seems like something to explore, before we get to things like telling our clients to use lighting systems that adjust to ambient daylight.

No, we can’t necessarily plan for the future life of the buildings we will design and build. Some buildings survive because of their history, their cultural significance. Others survive by luck. I don’t imagine that Sir Giles intended his Bankside Power Station to become a center for modern art. But there it is, the Tate Modern, a quite successful transformation, in my own humble opinion.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the need for our profession to take an active role in this wave of environmental activism. We are, by the nature of our work, responsible for dramatically altering good old mother earth; consequently, it is up to us to make sure that our work is sympathetic to nature, rather than a desecration. But, before we get swept up in ratings and bamboo flooring, solar panels and non-toxic carpets, we may want ask ourselves this: is what we plan to do is worth the permanent mark we will leave? And can we build with a longevity that provides for a different use, a different future, from the one originally intended?

So, while not overtly green, as new projects of that scale tend to scream in their publicity statements, the Tate is a remarkable case of reuse. A potential landfill’s worth of waste, saved, salvaged, and put to use for a new generation. I don’t think of it as a building many would associate with the “green” movement, but I would definitely consider it a very green project. Old becomes new, and with it, brings to life an industrial wasteland. That is a type of recycling I can get behind.