Is there "there" there?
Hey there. This post is dedicated to all of us who stayed at home for over two months as directed to curb the spread of the Coronavirus AND to those who are venturing out to protest systemic racism. I have written this to help myself through this time, and I hope it provides you something of value as well.
Is there "there" there?
Yes, indeed, a sentence, and I concede, a challenging notion.
Through a mass stay-at-home effort, we have turned much of everything inside out, our experience of the built world, the natural world, even our interior selves. And now, a social reckoning that includes mass gatherings, an outward facing demonstration of pain and suffering, and hope, and what feels like a catastrophic collapse of our institutions. These are remarkable times.
I haven't made sense of much. As an architect, I am humbled. Our job is to consider where "there" is. Now, with "there" replaced with stay-at-home orders, a virtual shutdown of the public physical world, many places are making their way to us in alternative forms, like amplified experiences of the digital world. And, likewise, the desperation to address society's wrongdoings brings people en masse to the streets, the most public and socially ubiquitous space we share.
It's a lot.
We often use architectural metaphors for ideals. We live among constructs, things that are built and things we build and experience together. For the built environment, it could be a district, a cultural institution like a public library or museum, a hospital, a courthouse, a jail. For our society, our institutions include the government, a police force, our national identity, media, and free speech. Institutions can be built on strong or weak foundations, with profound effects on our safety, well-being, and our rights.
These days, we see and feel a disintegration of institutions. We no longer go "there" physically, because of the pandemic, and our faith and sense of safety in our government and civic institutions appear dismantled and knocked down. What was there before no longer looks and feels the same, and for some, may have never been assuring.
It is easier to take for granted our physical experiences in the places we work and visit and live. Constructs that support our reality exist to frame our lives, to comfort and annoy us. These are the places we share with each other and the places that shape us. When we feel comfortable, we don't think much about it, for better or for worse. I appreciated this unconscious acceptance after being at home for several weeks during Israel's national quarantine, when the outside world was artificially shut down, and I had the opportunity to notice what wasn't there.
Similarly, civic institutions that structure our social interactions receive stability from our trust in them. Since they serve us in important ways, not least of which is as pillars of our society, it feels more comfortable to assume they are strong and safe, and in shapes and forms we believe in. It is much harder to see them as vulnerable structures. And now, what used to be concrete and stone is turning to sand. In structural terms, this could lead to catastrophic failure.
Architecturally speaking, I wonder, how does one build and rebuild trust? We are learning how to come back "there", to our physical spaces, with masks, mindfulness, and social distancing. Rebuilding trust, however, feels like something all together different. The pandemic didn't fundamentally change our built environment. Starbucks still smells the same. We cannot so easily return to our beaten and battered social environment. There are no concrete answers here.
The institutions crumbling around us may no longer serve the purposes they were designed for. If they were built to serve some but not all, thus faulty from the start, they can't endure. If the building blocks of truth can no longer be trusted, the structures should be torn down. Any municipal building department will tell you that.
So here we are, in the demolition dust, without clear vision. However, even in the dust storm, we can feel our feet on the ground that matters most, our moral ground. We are still here, after all. We can and must build from this place.
Part II Life Safety and Fallibility, An Unlikely Pair
The basic tenet of architecture is life safety. A structure should not fall down and hurt someone. We have volumes and volumes of codes and guidelines, established from experience over the long history of buildings that inform our work to make buildings safe and habitable. Beyond that, of course, there is comfort, function, and delight. And beyond that, the ultimate purpose to serve people and social interaction in its most ideal form. The built environment is a reflection of culture, economics, socio-economics, and even societal values.
Architects know a little bit about a lot of things. We aren't structural engineers but we know enough about structure to design. We aren't physicists but we know enough about material properties to use them. We aren't anthropologists but we know enough to plan for people. We start and end with questions. We mess up a lot, and learn from experience, constantly updating and improving life safety codes and choices. We work in large teams with consultants, manufacturers, builders and experts to support the process. It is complex, but do-able. We see the results all around us.
We design things with failure as a consideration. A building shouldn't burn, but if it does, it should burn as slowly as possible so people can get out. We aspire to design gorgeous and profound experiences, but we humbly and intricately design egress and refuge. Even buildings are vulnerable.
We build buildings, neighborhoods and towns, despite knowing we don't know everything. We may be arrogant at times (architects, arrogant??), but we can always improve. The process will have errors, mistakes, misjudgments. We rely on safeguards and guidelines and our best efforts at good decisions, but there is no fool proof building project. We are designing places for people, after all, and people change, needs change. Parts of a building are semi-permanent, and other parts are fleeting. And we are merely the sum of our own experiences.
A project will reach a state of completion, but the results of our efforts are never permanent or invariable. The built environment is actually alive, made manifest by experiences, not the materials we used or images we drew in our minds. Yet, I can speak for myself here, there is intense love for the process and an acceptance of fallibility in ourselves and the institutions we build, because it is innate to the very practice of architecture. We can only move forward and incorporate new knowledge and wisdom into our practice, and the field.
Our work can hurt or help, and I see this parallel in our civic institutions. Just because we desire them to be strong, infallible, and even beautiful, does not mean they are. I think the pain of the present moment is our over-emphasis on the frame of institutions, the wishful facade of something greater than it is, and not the actual experience of people, in this life, in this moment, the reason the institutions exist. We want institutions to be the majestic, democratic towers that exist in our dreams, but the patterns of behavior inside them are resulting in physical death, literally.
Let's not stand outside and marvel at the grandeur and beauty of a failing institution, let's go inside, analyze it, see for ourselves what is failing and help each other, hand to hand, wearing masks and with hand sanitizer if need be. Let's not be afraid to identify the cracks and make a plan of action to renovate, restore, rebuild, whatever is required to address basic life safety, and beyond that, comfort and delight, and beyond that, serve people and social interaction in its most ideal form.
Let's not over-emphasize the "framers" of our democracy, and our leaders along the way as infallible, perfect pillars, immovable figures like monuments. Let's study them for their contributions and character, so that their complex histories can inform our knowledge and understanding, including the good and bad. All of the life safety measures we enjoy in architecture unfortunately came from tragedies. We need to be facile with our fallibility, to learn from terrible mistakes, respond, and improve. We need to tolerate complexity. Let's view democracy as a practice, one that we enjoy bettering based on the maturation of our own humanity. The founders built this democracy for us to engage in, to live and be well in, to breathe life in, long after they are gone. Let's do what we believe best in our time, and know that the people who come after us will do the same, and hopefully make even better choices than we can understand now.
Site analysis and soil reports are important to any building project, because as mentioned, the foundations determine the quality and potential of the structure. I'm not at all sure how to define a moral ground at the moment, or where we might begin to search to find one! I wish I had more than shaky ground to stand on right now. When we watched the Twin Towers crumble to the ground on 9/11 we witnessed the physical destruction of monumental structures. Our hopes and dreams for our national unity rose strong from the dust. We replaced the physical structures with our values at that time. We institutionalized our memories of who and what was lost, and we built again. We shouldn't suffer such tragedy and destruction, but we do. We, the people, are what matters, then and now. We are vulnerable and also strong.
Perhaps if we stop seeing our civic and cultural institutions as "institutions", and rather see them as practices, pursuits for our higher goals, we can more easily be excited about their continued transformations, and less freaked out by the feeling of their destruction and demise. This is our ground zero, and a good starting point, if you ask me. Let's not confuse humility with weakness. A recognition of fallibility and desire to learn and improve makes us far stronger practitioners. Stronger practitioners build better institutions. Institutions can and should inspire with grandeur, but grandeur can be redefined in time.
Architecture is about life safety, but beyond that is comfort and delight, and the openness to new and changing experiences. This is a real joy to design for. It is incredibly satisfying to be creative, to innovate, to care for and serve people through the constructs we imagine and design. Can we not find the same joy in transforming and advancing our democratic institutions? How can we not experience joy in the pursuit of building the society we believe we deserve? When we emerge from our self quarantines, when we gather as citizens on the streets what will we find there? I believe as builders of our institutions we can find joy in celebrating our successes, manifested concretely with each others' safety, well-being, and ability to thrive. I believe we can find the strength to face our weaknesses, and face each other with outstretched arms and torches that illuminate, not burn. Is there "there" there? I sure hope so.
Here are some resources to check out:
Why Justice in Design is Critical to Repairing America, by Meagan O'Neill
America's Enduring Caste System, by Isabel Wilkerson
How Did We Get Here: 163 years of The Atlantic's writing on race and racism in America, compiled, by Gillian B. White