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Where Are the Utopian Visionaries? Architecture of Social Exchange

Edited by Hansy Better Barraza
Periscope, 2012
Reviewed by Eric J. Cesal  

Many of the projects cited in this book, which aims to spotlight architecture’s social responsibilities and design opportunities, are inspiring. Despite a provocative list of contributors, however, what keeps nagging at the reader is a sense that the book is just a little bit out of time.

Hansy Better Barraza identifies as the “vocative” for the book a symposium held at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004, during which a group of like-minded architects discussed issues of architecture and social change. From this discussion, “a book to capture this turning point quickly took on an air of inevitability.” Barraza, who is the co-founder of BR-A-CE: Building Research–Architecture–Community Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to creating new community spaces, notes that she “slowed the process of publication so as to allow contributors to develop their essays and project reports.” “Slowed,” in this case, is generous, as it has been nine years since that symposium, and the profession has evolved considerably.

The present difficulty is that humanitarian architecture is not as utopian or as visionary as it once was. Barraza begins: “This book turns away from the usual concerns of architecture to consider the people routinely consigned to silence and invisibility in the design process.… architects everywhere find themselves facing social responsibilities larger and more complex than any owed a single client base or single set of professional standards.” The book’s critical articles and case studies, she writes, “offer readers a guide to new directions in architectural practice.” The case studies, however, offer design tactics and elements that are increasingly at the heart of practice, not at the fringe. Participatory design, social/spatial equity, and bamboo construction all make the requisite appearances.

This needn’t be counted as criticism. In some ways, the fact that humanitarian architecture has come into its own as a discipline now testifies to the forethought of the book’s contributors. Indeed, the book might be better understood as a capture of a heady time in humanitarian architecture. Today’s visionary is tomorrow’s Luddite, and the architectural dialogue evolves quickly — though never quickly enough for some of us.

Frustratingly, the book doesn’t make a clear distinction between projects that are implemented and those that have only been proposed — it handles them in the same manner. It shouldn’t. There is now a great swell of architects who are making their utopias real, so much so that we don’t have to choose between idealistic sensibilities and actionable results.

Although the book rails against a detached “starchitecture,” which ignores the needs of the day, it falls prey to the familiar architect’s fallacy: that something which has been designed has impact. Buildings have impact. We cannot cure humanity’s ills with a rendering or model of a building any more than we can cure hunger with a picture of food.

Thoughtful essays by Michael Sorkin and Alberto Pérez-Gómez serve as book-ends, both of them capturing the angst and hopefulness of humanitarian design. Peter Clegg takes us on a wonderful tour of his firm’s work on environmentally and socially minded design in developing countries, adeptly connecting the large social and governmental problems affecting the humanitarian designer with an accessible, brass-tacks narrative on how to get it done. And Jonathan Massey’s “Five Ways to Change the World” is a breathtakingly blunt and refreshing approach that comes off more as life coaching than architectural analysis, in a good way. One cannot help finishing the book and wondering where the authors stand now and how they would evaluate the profession at its current state, with a humanitarian design studio in every school and major firms opening nonprofit, socially minded arms as part of their practice. Is this the utopia we all wished for? If not, what’s left to get us there?

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Architecture Depends

Jeremy Till
MIT Press, 2009
Reviewed by Marie S.A. Sorensen AIA

I sit on the roof deck of a tall building north of Boston. I am on the deck for the view as much as for the sun — and for the opportunity to measure Jeremy Till’s words against the multiples before me: cars, bridges, buildings, smokestacks, trains, trash piles, and repair materials expediently affixed; many, many “messy” contexts. Through the lens of Le Corbusier, or the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, I see a coherence of taut edges and landmark spires framing the Merrimack River. I return a phone call and give a quote for architectural services (a referral from a local hardware store): $5,000. The quantity is misunderstood. How much can you pay? Five hundred.

Is the view from the street more reliable than the view from the tower? Till’s mission in Architecture Depends is to pull apart the certainty with which most architects approach their work. A coach who can see the bigger game, fiercely loyal but pushing for improvement, Till coaxes and prods toward relevance. He looks to anthropology, spatial geography, community planning, and literature to tease out the “situatedness” of buildings, an issue that only he and a few others have defined with such attention.

Mess — Till’s central concept — is both at odds and at one with architectural practice. Mess is the unpredictability of interactions with buildings resulting in alteration, and mess is fragility: the “reality that [buildings] always enter the social realm as transient objects.…” Coach Till would like us to appreciate weathering and other changes in buildings’ appearance because of natural causes, either harnessing them or marking milestones of “positive transformation toward completion” as David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi have done in On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time.

Debunking Modern and Beaux Arts pedagogies alike, Till does not reject design-ordering principles altogether; rather he refutes the certainty of holding onto one set of principles as opposed to “remaining open.” How, then, does Till decide what things look like? What does he consider enlightened practice?

Till holds that progress is false, but he is an inventor of methods, his favorite two being technological hybrids (“lo-fi”) and narrative. Till’s “lo-fi” architecture rejects the wasteful fetishism of high-maintenance design: curtainwalls of clear shiny glass, for example, cleaned acrobatically at great expense. Till enjoys provocative jokes. At Interbuild, a high-profile British building materials tradeshow, he and Sarah Wigglesworth (architect, his wife) make a compressed hay bale wall sheathed in polycarbonate that instigates shouting into a mobile phone from one onlooker: “I am standing in front of a fooking haystack, and they are calling it the future!”

Narrative as an ordering principle —  memory-images cast as words, then as buildings — is also fruitful for Till. He explains how the design of his home was negotiated with Wigglesworth over several weeks as they told stories of spatial memories to each other while walking through the back streets of London. Later, he cites a ribbon-cutting ceremony in which Frank Gehry allows that his inspiration for the Guggenheim Bilbao was his grandmother’s carp pond, experienced as a child; Till stands by, willing “Frank” (whom he presumably knows) not to lead us to the conclusion that he has made “fishy space.”

In Architecture Depends, Till has both whet our appetite for more provocative hybrids and “word-buildings,” and set the stage for an extensive project that bridges anthropology and psychology: a longitudinal ethnography of the occupants of a building or district; complementing this, a study of people’s visual habits and spatial memories. While arguing for the view from the street, Coach Till, now head of Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London, is an inducted member of the tower tribe.

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The Hub’s Metropolis: Greater Boston’s Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth

James C. O’Connell
MIT Press, 2013
Reviewed by David Luberoff

Preparing to move to Boston in 2000, James O’Connell went “scouting for a home to buy” in Milton near the Blue Hills Parkway. As an urban and cultural historian, he recognized that the road and nearby neighborhoods were typical of Boston’s inner-core suburbs and thought it would be interesting to learn more about how they were built. Thus began a more than decade-long exploration that culminates with The Hub’s Metropolis.

O’Connell, a community planner for the National Park Service in Boston, fills three notable gaps with this book. First, rather than focusing on the city’s historic core, O’Connell turns his eye on the entire region. Second, rather than focusing on well-known epochs and structures, he is interested in the full sweep of development, including the region’s ubiquitous and largely undistinguished split-level houses, Cape Cod–style homes, and McMansions. Finally, O’Connell recognizes that there is a gap between guidebooks, which tell us what to see but not why, and history books, which tell us why but often ignore the what. To fill this third gap, he describes nine waves of development, starting with “Traditional Village Centers and Proto-Suburbs,” continuing through such eras as “Metropolitan Parkway Suburbs” and “Postwar Automobile Suburbs,” and ending with the current “Smart Growth Era.”

The book’s “guidebook” elements point to extant buildings and communities that exemplify each era. In Newton, where O’Connell ultimately settled, he not only suggests well-known sites such as the Jackson Homestead and the MBTA Green Line station in Newton Centre but also points to Oak Hill Park, a development of 418 small, cottage-style homes the city built in the late 1940s for veterans of World War II and their families.

Although useful, the book does have its limits and flaws. Because it spans vast amounts of both time and space, the accounts of specific projects cannot convey the wide array of values, goals, beliefs, and forces that drove them. Writing about the Middlesex Fells, for example, O’Connell notes that it was part of a seminal plan prepared by Charles Eliot and Sylvester Baxter, creators of the Metropolitan Park Commission, a notable example of regional governance in an otherwise fragmented region. However, he does not mention the significant class and religious differences behind the park’s creation. Indeed, as historian Michael Rawson has pointed out, the park’s very name was a 19th-century fiction designed to suggest a nonexistent Anglo-Saxon past for an area called The Five-Mile Wood, popular with Irish-Catholic immigrants.

Such gaps become more striking when O’Connell, who has strong views on what he considers desirable policies, writes about contemporary issues. He laments the state’s decision not to construct a second major airport at Fort Devens when that facility closed in the early 1990s, but does not note that funding the new airport probably would have required enormous increases in landing fees at Logan Airport during construction and possibly closing Logan after the new airport opened. Nor does he mention that a successful airport at Devens would have spurred the sprawling development he frequently decries elsewhere in the book.

Despite these drawbacks, The Hub’s Metropolis is a welcome addition to my shelves of “books about Boston” and will accompany me as I travel the region.

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