ReTales: How Trying Too Hard Messes Up Main Street

In taking on the foibles of our built environment, author James Howard Kunstler makes a point of noting that he’s neither an architect nor planner. Instead, he’s the everyman, and his profession is dutifully pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

I’m in a similar position. I’m not an architect or planner either (or a retail consultant, for that matter). I’m an interpreter of such folks, taking the wonky banter that characterizes their various disciplines and making it accessible to the concerns and interests of regular, everyday people. Continue Reading

Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

Community and Charity: Bold Action Inspires a Closer Look

You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. – Mark 14:07

I’m not sure Jesus could see all the way to the 21st century.

If he could, he may have been more inclined to offer, “You’ll always have the poor, but there are plenty of ways to avoid their unpleasantries. And you can still figure out how to help them if you put your mind to it.”

Think about it. We’ve invested immeasurable resources over three quarters of a century in land use policy specifically designed to ensure that the poor are not among us. As a result, we’ve detached ourselves from certain truths – biblical and otherwise.

It’s more comfortable, to be sure, but is it really better for us?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues lately, largely due to the release of a new book, “The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.” The premise is moving: Kevin Salwen and his family decide to sell their posh Atlanta residence in favor of one half its size, then donate half the proceeds to a charity they researched and chose together.

What’s equally intriguing is the spark that ignited their endeavor. Sitting at a traffic light with his daughter, Hannah, the two witnessed an otherwise unremarkable juxtaposition of two men – one homeless, one idling in a luxury car.

The jarring contrast woke up 14-year-old Hannah to the reality of extreme inequity and, in subsequent actions as a family, extreme charity.

It’s a commendable, even beautiful, story, but it makes me wonder: Should we be relying on uncommon people doing remarkable things to bridge the gaps between all walks of life?

After all, in many ways, our current development patterns foster the “A-ha” moment experienced by Hannah by isolating us from the circumstances of the less fortunate. When we finally experience them, they’re shocking. In the case of some special people, they inspire dramatic actions. But for many of us, we close our eyes and hope for the light to change.

But what about the way we’ve lived historically—in traditional, human-scaled, diverse and interconnected communities—where people of all classes often crossed paths as a routine part of daily life and, as a result, were more inclined to develop meaningful interdependencies?

If our built world today continued to be governed by such patterns, would drastic reactions like the Salwen’s be necessary? Or, instead, would our eyes be open to the poor among us as a matter of course and charity take the form of a million little things over a lifetime instead of a big thing designed to make up for previous slights?

It’s not a new idea—Eric Jacobsen explored it nicely in “Sidewalks in the Kingdom”—but the Salwen’s book provides good opportunity to reconsider our relationship with the best and worst of others, and what it would take for our charitable actions to come more naturally.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Kevin socially a time or two and my fellow PlaceMaker, Ben Brown, has worked with him in the past, and that allows us the luxury—for a time—of transcending cynicism and simply enjoying the pleasure of experiencing real-McCoy decency. I think I’ll savor it for a bit.

But then I’m going to get back to the work of building stronger communities. Places where the bold actions of people like Kevin can be complemented regularly by a shared smile between two people of different means.

—Scott Doyon

Preservation Through Beauty

A recent New York Times article, examining struggling efforts to preserve the architecture of the New Deal, raises an interesting question: Why do some attempts at preservation capture broad-based attention and support while others wither away as fringe acts of desperation?

The answer might have a lot to do with beauty. Because, while we’ve come to accept as truth that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it really doesn’t.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

In a 2003 paper, V. Patnaik and others examine the human face and demonstrate how we culturally establish a shared understanding of beauty, concluding it’s the “relational proportion of our physical features that is the primary factor in determining the perception, conscious or subconscious, of beauty.”

More simply, certain proportions and arrangements are more pleasing than others. Not as a matter of personal opinion but as a collective, cultural agreement. We may not, as a nation of individuals, want to admit that we essentially view beauty in the same light, but tough luck. We do.

That’s why it’s not such a leap to conclude that our buildings and infrastructure work the same way. Most would agree that, at some point, our built environment stopped responding to a shared, cultural understanding of what’s beautiful and started expressing – at the upper end – the personal artistic ambitions of its designers and – at the lower end – the need to cut costs.

Either way, the result has been buildings and places that often lack the one thing most likely to ensure their preservation – the ability to be loved and valued by the everyman. As architect Steve Mouzon says often, “Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with the issue of Lovability.”

We can agree on what’s beautiful. We have met the beholder and it is us. The big question moving forward, especially as the financial floodgates of the stimulus package begin to open, is what are we going to do about it?

- Scott Doyon