Monday, March 22, 2010

California and Architecture

There are aspects of our far western life that seem at odds with the conventional understanding of architecture. If ever there was a profession that valued permanence, certainly architecture would fit this bill. Most people agree it is the good architect that can design a building to last.  On top of this there is the ongoing green movement with its emphasis on sustainability.  Sustainability would appear to be accomplished by manifesting permanence.  Something that doesn't require maintenance ought to incline toward sustainability.

But on a recent walk out near the back of Lake Sonoma I found something that struck me very differently.  I ran across old Skagg's Spring road.  This is the road that use to take people out to the coast before the dam was built.  The road simply disappears into the lake now and half submerged trees still stand ghostlike in the water from a time before the lake's construction.  I was struck again by a California truism:  It is hard to love the identity of California and the larger far west without making your peace with its impermanence. This idea is something wholly apart from specific architectural concerns and it can be hard to convince clients and architects alike that impermanence happens here the same way earthquakes do.  It is neither a virtue or a vice. It simply exists.

Because of this abiding California characteristic, building well crafted objects with less embodied energy is frequently the more responsible thing do for the environment. The early Californian poet, Robinson Jeffers, captured the beauty of this idea with his poem Apology for Bad Dreams when he wrote about a "cabin under spared trees."

The vast majority of California institutions have been transient. Our legacy of ghost towns, gold rushes, tech sector bubbles and earthquakes all conspire to paint a legacy of flux that implies a strategy of flexibility and improvisation for the people that, unlike their institutions, wish to abide here in the far west.

Isn't a plausible approach to development in California to build well crafted "tents" that represent a modicum of embodied energy and require the kind of preventative maintenance one associates with ships and gardens alike?  In this way we'd expend energy equal to the vitality of the inhabitation and energy would not be squandered on groundless notions of permanence. 

The fact that any "lifestyle" we currently enjoy in California might be slated for impermanence or more relevantly the duration our own life, should only focus our attention more on the things that we - as the serenity prayer says - "can change".  The time has come that we make a distinction between building well and building things to last. The former should be closer to our mark. For all the disparaging remarks the design community makes about the irresponsibility of flimsy structures we should keep in mind that in the west, one can equally make a case for the waste associated with buildings with allusions of permanence and grandeur.  The goal should be to shelter and nurture the people directly within sight of the project.

In the west there has been an enduring cocktail of hubris and decay.  Anyone who has witnessed California development for any duration knows that permanence and immortality are not only illusory, but also an unworthy aspiration.  Like anything heroic, you can not pursue it.  It is something that is encountered on the way to more pedestrian and more humanitarian goals.  If anything, this is precisely what defines our environmental crisis; the simple and consistent disregard for community resources while pursuing spectacular undertakings that promise a selective and isolated improvement in our environment.

It is not the first time the health of the collective environment was jeopardized by our individual desires for permanence and immortality.  But here in the far west of American democracy, it ought to be something we can put to rest at last.

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