God is in the Details

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Paris Louvre roof ornament & cresting

Guest post by Alvin Holm

The Buildings We Love are the Ones With Ornament

   Ornament is an act of love – or at least a token of esteem.  We embellish what we revere.  We adorn that which we love.  We do not decorate the hero, returning from the wars, to make him pretty – we decorate him to pay him honor.  Ornament is deep stuff, greatly misunderstood in recent years.  

Paris Louvre first level columns, entablature, and arches with man doing yoga in foreground

   The reason that we see so little ornament in buildings of our modern culture is that we do not love them.  Or perhaps we do not love them because they are unlovely, unadorned.  Nor do we think it’s nice to love them – that is, to have a visceral, sentimental, soulful relationship to them – because they are after all products of our intellect, rationally conceived, cost-effective, piously functional, sleek, sensible and cool.

   But recently <note from Steve: this was written in 1996, about a conference in the fall of 1995> I participated in a heavily attended two-day conference in New York on ornament in classical architecture, and that can only mean that things are changing fast.  

Paris Louvre upper level and gable with elaborate stone ornament

   I can no more fully understand the return of the classical – with its standard elements of columns, capitals, pediments, entablatures, and an assortment of ornamental motifs like leaves, rosettes, and garlands – than I could comprehend the loss of it.  But I believe that it accompanies what Deepak Chopra has called “the final cataclysmic overthrow of the myth of materialism.”  I assure you this is happening, and a larger, older, richer paradigm is taking the stage. (And the new science is on our side this time.  More on that later.)

   Ornament does many things for the article it graces.  It may lighten or give weight, it may reveal or disguise, it may suggest usage or mystify.  Ornament gives value and imparts meaning.  These are all worthy roles, but it is important to remember that primary relationship between the maker and the artifact and the ornament as a badge of honor and affection.  

Paris Louvre first level bench with two young lovers

   There is a large and growing school of psychology that deals now with issues of the soul.  James Hillman and Robert Sardello, for instance, would agree that ornament in this sense is good for the soul of the maker as well as for the soul of the user or the viewer, to say nothing of the soul of the artifact itself.  When the moderns stripped ornament away, much of the soul in architecture was lost.  And with it went the soul of our cities. 

   James Gleick in his popular book on chaos theory writes that to Benoit Mandelbrot, a contemporary mathematician whose concepts are affecting many fields, “the epitome of the Euclidean sensibility outside mathematics was the architecture of the Bauhaus…spare, orderly linear, reductionist, geometrical.”  To Mandelbrot and his followers, the failure of modernism is clear:  Simple geometric shapes are inhuman.  They fail to resonate with the way nature organizes itself or with the way human perception sees the world.  

Paris Louvre gable with sculptures in tympanum

   “A geometrical shape has a scale,” Gleick writes, “a characteristic size.  To Mandelbrot, art that satisfies lacks scale…A Beaux Arts paragon like the Paris Opera has no scale because it has every scale.  An observer seeing the building from any distance finds some detail that draws the eye.  The composition changes as one approaches and new elements of the structure come into play.”  So here we have New Science in praise of the old Beaux Arts. 

   Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th-centrury mystic, a nun, a writer, painter, and composer of beautiful music.  In a poem about creativity she wrote:

Paris Louvre broken bowspring pediment with elaborate stone sculpture with human figures, animals, and plants

   As the creator loves his creation

   So the creation loves the creator,

   Creation, of course, was fashioned to be adorned,

   To be showered, to be gifted with the love of the creator.

   The entire world has been embraced by this kiss.

   This affectionate reciprocity of which she writes is largely missing from our designed environment today.  Ornament is that kiss of the maker that marks the artifact for its own sake and then for the sake of the user. 

   Architecture begins as a ritual of celebration and must continue again in that spirit if we are to enter the 21st century with honor and grace.  This is a bone-deep truth that is today again rising to the surface.  A surface we may now embellish to our hearts’ content.

   ~Alvin Holm

   Alvin Holm is a Philadelphia architect practicing in the classical tradition.


   Note from Steve to Al:

   I was in the audience on the South side of  Manhattan's Washington Square that day, and your address changed my career. Previously it seemed that the only architects who cared for such things were just a few authors, but here was a practicing architect that could articulate things I could only feel at the time. Al, you laid out the ways that architecture could take on an ennobling role with clarity I had not heard theretofore, and with humility rare in our profession. You literally changed my direction, and I thank you for it now. You continue to be an inspiration unto this day.

The Charlottetown Challenge

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   We sorely need a forward-looking town and its surrounding region to step up and remake themselves as a world-class model of true sustainability from the level of the region to the level of the building. I've just returned from Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island in Canada, and have high hopes that the citizens there just might transform themselves into just such a place.

   A few other places are making promising noises, such as Oberlin, Ohio and Greensburg, Kansas. But while the people behind them are completely well-intentioned, most of those noises are predictably about Gizmo Green measures, which are based on the premise that we can achieve sustainability with nothing more than better equipment and better materials. The reason that's predictable is because Gizmo Green dominates sustainability discussions to such a degree that most people don't realize there's anything else.

Charlottetown Prince Edward Island PEI residential street

Charlottetown side street

   But there is. And Gizmo Green will soon be exposed for what it really is: only a very small part of the formula for real sustainability. Here's why: We are seeing a massive population migration in many developing countries from low-impact agrarian settings into the city. We need approximately 1 car per citizen in the US. If the two most populous countries, China and India, do over twice as well as the US in their need for cars in the city, there will be over a billion cars on the road just in those two countries in a few years that don't even exist today! It doesn't matter what you think of of the reality of Peak Oil because this is Economics 101: supply and demand. Even if world oil supply keeps increasing at the same rate as it has over the past ten years, demand will quickly outstrip supply and prices will skyrocket. The recent flirtation with $5/gallon is only a prelude. Expect $20/gallon and beyond not so many years from now.

Charlottetown Prince Edward Island PEI commercial side street at sunset

bright end to a dark day?

   The speed with which this will happen is impossible to predict, but if it happens quickly enough, people will be unprepared. Many who live furthest from work will discover that they simply can't afford to live there anymore. This already happened in pockets of the US when gas first reached $5/gallon in 2008. But at $10, and then $20/gallon, many more of us will find our very livelihoods at stake. Sit down today and chart out your Web of Daily Life. Then ask youself how many parts of that web would be clipped at $10, then at $20/gallon. Could you afford to drive to work? To the grocery? Jane Jacobs and Jim Kunstler could be right… we could be in for dark days ahead.

   When times are dark, people can fall off the edge into all sorts of Kunstlerian terror if they have no hope. But if there's something that gives them hope, then they can stay the course to a better future even if it's clear there is much work to be done. This is why it is so crucial to have at least one town and its surrounding region as a shining example of how to remake a place in highly sustainable fashion.

Seaside Florida post office and flagpole with American flag

Seaside's post office

   Seaside, Florida is a single little town built on just 60 acres of Florida Panhandle scrub oak and sand. Before Seaside, the only thing on the "Redneck Riviera" were condos on the beach, with T-shirt shops, gas stations, and liquor stores on the landward side of the highway. Land north of there was essentially worthless. Seaside began with a most audacious proposition expressed in the first marketing slogan: "Come Build a Town With Us." I remember seeing those billboards for the first time and being stirred nearly to my core. "Nobody builds towns today," I thought. But they did.

   Here's what else they did: Because Seaside was a vacation town rather than a first-home community, it was able to spread its revolutionary thinking broadly. People came and hung their car keys on the hook on the wall. After several days of not needing to drive anywhere, they said "I really want to live like this." So some of them went back home and worked to build neighborhoods in their hometowns that were compact, mixed-use, and walkable. Because of the single great model of Seaside, a movement was born. They call it the New Urbanism. Today, there are thousands of New Urbanist neighborhoods, hamlets, villages, and towns around the world. But it all began with the single great model town of Seaside.

Charlottetown Prince Edward Island PEI commercial street main street at sunset

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

   How does a great model emerge? Several things must happen. First, it must be located somewhere that people want to travel on vacation. Boise might be the most sustainable place in the world, but only those who are living there are traveling there on business will ever see it because Boise isn't your normal vacation spot. Because sustainability is something we must spread broadly, we need as many eyes as possible on the great model place. So it really must pass the Tourist Test. Places like this are most effective when surrounded by great natural beauty, like high on a picturesque mountain or by the sea shore.

Ann of Green Gables store on Charlottetown Prince Edward Island PEI main street commercial street high street

Charlottetown corner

   The next requirement is that the place must be small enough to be easily perceived. You really need to be able to drive around not only the town, but the entire surrounding region, in a day or less. New Urbanist Peter Calthorpe did an excellent plan for the Salt Lake City region several years ago. It won a number of awards. But the only way you can see the whole thing in a day is from a satellite, or from the moon. That doesn't work as a great model because the great majority of people can't comprehend it.

   Seaside is a great model of a single town, and also a single neighborhood, but it's not the center of a sustainable region. And even if it were, the edges bleed out into southern Alabama and southwest Georgia in not so much as a whimper. You really need a place that is bounded decisively by natural features. Prince Edward Island in Canada meets all these requirements. As does Beaufort, South Carolina and its surrounding county, bounded by creeks, wetlands, and river.

Charlottetown Prince Edward Island PEI founder bronze statue

Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, 

immortalized in bronze. He headed up the meetings

in Charlottetown that led to the eventual formation of Canada. 

It's not unusual to see both citizens and visitors sitting down to

have a conversation with him.

   The place also needs to have a great story to tell. Because the new story of their sustainability makeover needs to be built on a foundation of older stories that resonate broadly with those who visit. Why? Because if the model is to give us hope, we need to feel that these are townspeople who are like us in at least a few important ways. If they seem superhuman, it's easy to think "we could never do that." Plus, if the town has no interesting stories, would you really be interested in vacationing there in the first place?

   This is really important, because most people must be enticed to the place without knowing the full sustainability story because while some people are eco-tourists, the majority of people don't vacation in a place solely because it's green.

Charlottetown Prince Edward Island PEI church building steeple

Charlottetown church building

   Charlottetown and its surround region (Prince Edward Island,) unlike 95% of North American places, meets all of the requriements. It's small enough to be perceived without a ticket on the space shuttle. People from all over the region (and beyond) come there to vacation in summertime. It has an excellent town core. It has great stories to tell, starting with being the site of Canada's initial confederation. It has great sustainability stories to tell from our time as well, although those haven't been finished yet. It has a fascinating culture of creatives that form an arts community far stronger than the town's population might suggest.

   I spoke in Beaufort last fall and threw down the sustainability gauntlet: "There will be a town and surrounding region someday which will choose to be a world-class model of true sustainability. That's not in question. The only question is this: will it be Beaufort?" I ask Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island the same question today: "Will it be you?" We need you. Few towns were founded in regions where they could even dream of doing this. But you were. You could hold to the status quo and miss it entirely. Or you could be the shining example by the sea. Will you answer the call? We need you!

~Steve Mouzon

The Bed & Breakfast Bonus

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Wakefield Quebec bed & breakfast B&B front porch and tree

   Few realize that a neighborhood bed & breakfast can be an extraordinary money machine for its surrounding neighborhood. With the McMansion Era grinding to a sickening halt post-Meltdown, most people are looking for new ways to make every dollar count. Consider the heret0f0re-required guest room: if you build a guest suit complete with bedroom, bath, and closet, you'll be hard-pressed to design it to pre-Meltdown suburban standards in less than 250 square feet. Construction costs for well-built homes are approaching or have exceeded $200 per square foot in many parts of the country. That means the guest suite may add up to $50,000 or more to the cost of the home!

   Think back for a moment - how many nights has someone slept in your guest room this year? Probably not so many, if you are like most of us. Today, how can we tolerate throwing away $50,000 on something that is rarely used? Most of us can't.

Wakefield Quebec bed & breakfast B&B front gazebo

    That's where the bed & breakfast comes in: if there were a bed & breakfast in your neighborhood center, you'd have no need for a guest room, would you? Guests staying a 2-3 block walk away would still feel close to you, but more independent, and they likely feel like they aren't burdening you… so they might even come visit you more often. And you would likely feel less intruded upon, so you would welcome those more frequent visits.

   You might even offer to pay for their nights at the bed & breakfast. If so, you would almost certainly save a lot of money over building the guest room. Financing that $50,000, plus paying property taxes and insurance would definitely run $500 per month or more in most places. That means you would have to have a large number of visitors each year to pay more for the bed & breakfast than for the guest room… assuming you're paying to put them up in the first place. Most people who do would save thousands per year… quite a bonus!

   Think for a moment of the cumulative bonus: A neighborhood of 1,000 homes, for example, would save $50 million in construction costs on those homes! There are few other things a neighborhood can do to save so much money.

   But what about existing places? As we work to repair sprawl by gradually transforming sprawling subdivisions into sustainable neighborhoods that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable, there will be several opportunities:

Wakefield Quebec bed & breakfast B&B front door

   1. We'll be adding businesses where today there are nothing but houses. Normally, we should look first for the fabric in the subdivision that most needs to be healed - maybe where there are a few vacant lots. It is here that a bed & breakfast would fit in most easily.

   2. Making sprawl sustainable also means making the existing fabric more compact. We do this by allowing the existing homeowners to build accessory units on their lots and rent them, or actually subdivide their lots and sell the new units. In 60 years of home-owning, you're likely to have kids at home for only about 1/3 of that time… if you ever have kids in the first place. So roughly 2/3 of the homeowning public would be fine with only one bedroom if there were a B&B nearby. This means the existing homeowners might be able to build more than one accessory structure if their lot size allowed, making more money.

   3. Once the B&B starts operating, homeowners in the existing larger homes are freed up to use their guest suites for something else if they like. A home office is one obvious use for that suite, and you likely can think of others as well.

   We'll talk more about other businesses that should be added to help transform sprawling subdivisions into neighborhoods, and also how to go about sprawl repair in ways where everyone benefits. But for now, what's not to love about a neighborhood B&B?

~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013