The other side of south Florida

South Florida connotes a certain lifestyle in media and popular culture.  Miami’s bright, tall energy has always been intertwined with the Florida Everglades’ quiet, flat landscape – low, grassy plains soaked with swampwater and edged by dense jungle. The seam where these two opposites meet is neither active nor passive; it is, instead, a third thing, where man’s activity has subtly modified the landscape, and nature has slowed man’s pace closer to its own.  My recent experience at the edge of the Everglades had a sort of off-kilter Caribbean or Central American sense of place that felt exotic and familiar at the same time, a pleasant tension that reassures me there is still an edge to Florida where the scratchy blanket of protective regulation is thrown off to reveal informal, naturalized structures that blend beautifully into the natural environment.

Southwest of Miami lies the city of Homestead, Florida, famous for being the front door through which Hurricane Andrew entered Florida in 1992.  Today, Homestead is an exurb of Miami, with a relentless street grid extending west and south.  Homestead’s suburbs are newer vintage housing, schools, and commercial strips grown after Andrew’s devastation, stopped only by the hard edge of the Everglades National Park.  Along this line, the housing and farmland stops, and the wide River of Grass takes over.

South Florida Map by National Park Service

Homestead’s western frontier is a jagged edge, a sort of squared-off, rasterized curve defined by a patchwork of rear property lines and rural roads.  On one side, houses pop up in between rows of beans; on the other, a jumble of ficus and palmetto.  At more than one location, abandoned asphalt strips crumble into the jungle’s interior, a subdivision extended a little too far.  Here, no one ever built a home, the empty lots passing into a suburban archeology of rusted street signs and vine-choked fire hydrants, a developer’s dream faded away.

Back in the agricultural areas, open fields with crops alternate with tropical fruit groves.  Mango, papaya, banana, and coconut bloom in the spring, wafting fragrant scents in the early morning air.  Workers in the field are dwarfed by the flat landscape, a world away from the America’s eighth largest metropolitan area.

Early morning, Homestead

In this farmland area, the vernacular building style colorfully mixes shipping containers, chickees, and barn tin in a deliciously un-Miami-like way. The traditional Seminole chickee lends a tropical, exotic flair to this spotty rim of humanity pressed against nature’s vast size.  Thatched palm fronds create a natural insulation barrier blocking the sun’s heat, and the fully open sides allow the tiniest of breezes to move air through the space underneath.  This native response to the land is more appropriate than the thick-walled, stucco-buttered architecture imported from arid Spain and grafted onto Florida’s natural character.

The Seminoles take the opposite approach:  Work with nature, have a light touch, and when a hurricane blows it away, build it again.  This zen approach to fulfilling man’s need for shelter is decidedly unmodern and soft, and its presence at the edge of the Everglades lends a certain amount of respect to the power of nature just beyond.

Prototype chickee hut (drawing by RTR)

Unconsciously, civilized life is stripped away layer by layer on the margin of the city.  Abandoned subdivisions and Native American architecture both mark man’s over-reach into the wilderness.  Yet another marker can be found on buildings constructed by modern means, where layers of veneer are stripped away, revealing raw materials, unpainted and unadorned, standing crude and timeless against the trees and the sky. The edge’s presence can be sensed where structures start to dissolve into informality.

Unpainted structures common to the edge of the Everglades

Everglades National Park is a hard, urbanized boundary on the map, but on the ground it is an ironically blurred zone where the slow-moving river of grass influences human activities.  The nuanced edge continues into the Everglades themselves, where Florida’s subtle water-nature is uninterrupted.  Water flows in a gentle, slow sheet across Florida’s flat limestone bed coated with organic material barely thick enough for life to cling to.  Where the limestone base dips a few inches, grass fails to grow; where a nub rises up above this hard plain a few inches, unique tree islands gather.  These islands are so densely vegetated as to admit no human, their edges wrapped in a thick tangle of branches and leaves, a sort of bonsai-forest in miniature.  Urban civilizations of insects, birds, and other small creatures inhabit these infrastructures, city-states of nature out of man’s reach.

Tree islands dotting Shark River Slough

In between approaching jets and the distant rumble of airboats, a larger silence takes over.  Penetrating the membrane between inside and outside makes possible a certain perspective on the question of man’s activities in the context of the larger world.  Confining our efforts to areas that are already strongly modified by human activities suddenly makes sense.  Boundaries, once created, harden over time, and the softness of the western edge of humanity against the eastern boundary of the Everglades seems destined to harden.  In its current state, this snapshot of the feathered, nuanced edge of civilization seems to be delicately balanced between the rural and the natural.  Agricultural industry on the periphery of the great conurbation of Miami moves at the pace of seasons and rainfall, making a rhythm that is in between the seasonal flow of the Everglades and the nanosecond street culture of contemporary western civilization.

Florida’s ubiquitous industry, tourism, mixes with agriculture even here with airboat rides, fruit stands, and alligator wrestling shows peppering the edge of the wetlands.  The Everglades vernacular architecture is not quite agricultural, yet not quite contemporary Florida either.

The Everglades vernacular

The flavor of these places has more connection to the Caribbean tropicalism one finds on islands like Puerto Rico, Barbados, and Hispanola.  Endlessly adaptable shipping containers sit cheek-by-jowl with chicken coops and thatch awnings to create an ad hoc pedestrian space under palm trees.  All is a little too clean and, well, inspectable to be really offshore; but it’s also a little more relaxed than the strangely uptight postmodern built environment we’ve come to expect in America.

Heading east out of the Everglades is a somewhat wistful journey forward in time.  Mango-treed rural roads abruptly give way to fruit processing plants, which back up to grocery store strips, and the standard parade of global brand names enters the windshield, a gateway back into contemporary America.  Stoplights take longer, traffic pace quickens, and today’s Florida, like a hairshirt, envelopes you in a cocoon of highly regulated infrastructure put there for your own protection.

The solid state house

A glimpse of the solid state house

Housing will take a great leap forward when the house becomes married to the concept of “solid state.”  The Qwave will be the beginning of this revolution, when solid state – i.e., no moving parts – becomes meshed into notion of shelter.  Ergo, the Solid State House.  This will be the housing of the future.

With the introduction of “solid state” circuitry in the 1940s, the transistor replaced the vacuum tube to shrink circuits, improve precision, and eliminate maintenance and wear.  This concept revolutionized electronics.  While William Shockley and John Pierce created the transistor, they had to describe the new physical form, or state, they were working in.

Tubes were large, coarse, and had to be replaced when they overheated or malfunctioned.  Transistors did not.  Tubes required a lot of energy and current to move electrons around so they could do their jobs, rest and recharge, and activate devices.  Transistors could do the same job with a fraction of the energy – thus reducing heat, cost, and time because they could also be spaced closer together.  Radios collapsed from briefcase sized objects down to thumb-sized objects.  A radio today is a mere speck, a partition within a larger microchip measured in nanometers.

The tinyhouse movement is still in its nascent stages, and running into some important battles.  For one thing, the entire economic system is blockading this movement, because it is entirely designed for supersize.  From the permitting process (you pay the same order of magnitude cost whether you permit 400 SF or 4000 SF – the same “baseline” cost applies, and the increase is only incremental).  Municipalities have no incentive to reduce permitting costs, desperate as they are for cash.  So the tinyhouse must pay the same tribute to the king as a mcmansion.

Builders have little interest in not-so-big houses, because they are built quicker with fewer materials.  Why would a builder want to sacrifice price?  The management of a construction job is the same, whether managing a 3-month, 400 SF project or a 3-month 4,000 SF project.

Builders also are accustomed to a certain supply chain of vendors, with whom they have developed relationships.  Gypsum wallboard, for example, isn’t really cheaper; it is, however, the bread-and-butter staple of interior construction and has become a commodity that can be manipulated, either by material cost or labor rates, to always come out at the bottom of the options for interiors. If you are seeking an interior finish that has less impact on the environment, you will always pay more.  The small house movement has not yet figured out how to work around this consumptive, wasteful supply chain, and unwittingly adopts it into the movement, rewarding the same people at the top of the chain, taking the same resources from the earth, and injecting the same waste.  The notion that they are doing less of it only means that a tiny house is less bad than a larger house.

And finally, a tiny house, once it is finally finished, has hundreds, if not thousands, of individual separate parts and all of them move.  The daily temperature cycle warms up and expands things during the day, shrinks them at night.  Rain wears down finishes, opens up joints between materials.  Air conditioning creates a humidity imbalance that nature is constantly trying to correct.  Current construction methods, with all the different trades and specialties, has not addressed these in any different way than they were addressed fifty or a hundred years ago.  Everything moves, subtly, if not grossly.

We haven’t even considered all the machines within the house.  Air conditioners, ceiling fans, switches, faucets, water heaters, and on and on and on.  All of these have moving parts.  They break down, require maintenance, and have their own supply stream.  Whether a house is small or large, it has all the same baggage in terms of motors, lights, machines, and pipe joints.  The lengths of straight pipe between joints may be shorter, but the connections, where the leaks occur, are still the same.

The not-so-big-house will not, in its current form, succeed and converge into a broadly cast ethos for the masses.  The “system” is embedded way too deeply into its bones.  This system has evolved, Darwinian style, carrying all these bad genes into the present generation.  If the mcmansion is doomed, so is the small house.

Another type of evolution is possible, however:  Lamarckian evolution, that which can be changed in ONE generation.  Like transistors evolved out of tubes, so can a solid state house evolve out of the current situation.  This is the only possible pathway towards the future.

The ideal Solid State House shall have no separate moving parts.  The Solid State House shall be endlessly customizable out of factory parts.  The Solid State House shall shrink.

These are the reasons why the not-so-big house movement will be the testing ground for the Solid State House.  Innovation is easy when you are dealing with large scale projects, and looking for ways to save money.  Invention, however, is not possible.  Large projects have too much riding on the scale to look at new ideas.

Small, projects, however, are the province of INVENTION.  A new way of doing things is easier to test when failure is small scale.  Edison tested thousands of filaments in his light bulb before he found tungsten.  A filament is small.  Shockley tested thousands of alloys in a transistor before he found gallium-arsenide, and even that needed to be replaced with something a little less poisonous.  Finding that gallium-arsenide combination was invention.  Perfecting it with silicon was innovation.

The Solid State House shall have:

Single components that service multiple uses.  A roof panel, for example, shall be both structural and waterproof.  Manufacturing shall be perfected so as to reduce waste in the roof panel process and eliminate the 3-4 large dumpsters that have to be hauled off no matter what size – room addition or mcmansion.

Circuitry above the head shall be all low-voltage direct current.  LED lighting only requires 12 or 24 volts DC.  Right now, we bring 120V AC to the LED light and it has a built-in transformer.  A solid-state house will eliminate the transformer, reduce the quantity of expensive copper needed to get power to the light, and embed the wires into the construction.

Water-carrying pipes are in rigid PVC or copper because it is cheaper for long distance.  A small house, carrying water shorter distances, will be able to use more flexible hoses, eliminating pipe joints.  The future small house will bake these into the wall, much like holes in bread, eliminating a second material from the mix.

Air conditioning will be underfloor or in-wall through microtubules that work like sweat glands in reverse:  constantly removing moisture from the air, channeling it into a system that cools air, and creating a transpirational cycle that will make the small house microclimate function in the same way as the space under a tree canopy.  Unlike LEED, which requires a hermetically sealed space to minimize energy, this new system will work best when the windows are open.  Reconnecting with nature will be a pleasant byproduct of the solid state house.

As many appliances as possible will be 24V direct current.

As many appliances as possible will function without motors, gears, or bearings.  A “gear room” or utility room will be where the shameful old appliances, like washing machines, will be placed, those poor servants that still must labor in the old way.  Eventually these will be solid-state, too.

The solid-state house will be at first very small.  Finishes, which is the “look” of the house, can be anything.  If the current preference is wattle-and daub, that can be added to the building.  But the solid-state nature of the house, with prefabricated wall and roof panels cut to size and fitted together seamlessly, will have its own integrity regardless of the clothing it wears.

The last and most important part of the solid state house will be its transportability.  A foundation system will allow it to anchor firmly to the ground and be connected to local utilities (if required).  As a not-so-big house, however, it will also be easily transportable.

This exciting revolution will allow time and space to collapse finally, and bring architecture into our liquid, postmodern, nanosecond twenty-first century.

The Solid State House was recently published in The New Geography.  Trendy Builder Magazine recently published this commentary:

New Geography contributor and architect Richard Reep envisions home design and engineering solution akin to “solid state” technology, involving complete houses with no “moving parts.”

Reep’s riff takes off from the premise of the “not-so-big house” movement, which, although it represents promise directionally, doesn’t have a practical or operational likelihood of widespread traction. Here’s how Reep sees a tie between the non-starter small house initiative and the solid state house of the future:

The not-so-big house movement will be the testing ground for the solid-state house. Small projects are the province of invention. A new way of doing things is easier to test when failure is small scale.

The butterfly effect

When Edward Lorenz coined the term “butterfly effect” in 1969, he was talking about weather patterns, not art.  His theory that a puff of air from a butterfly’s wings could, in the right circumstances, amplify into a hurricane, was radical at the time.  The Museum of Art – DeLand has proven its ability to amplify the conversation about art in Central Florida, and just in the last two years has helped change the game.   No longer is Central Florida a refuge from ideas; instead it is attracting people with a hunger for visual aesthetics and the stimulation surrounding new ideas.  2015 has started off with three very strong artists:  Richard Anuszkiewicz, William Crutchfield, and Richard Haas all contribute unique visions to the conversation, earning the museum a solid position as a new leader in the visual arts of the region.

Dividing its space into an uptown museum and a downtown gallery, the Museum of Art sends people walking on the sidewalks of DeLand, a lively pedestrian experience.  Its openings start at happy hour, a smart move on the Museum’s part to capture a crowd already on the move and not ready to go home yet and chill.  The haute energy in the uptown museum sets DeLand’s tone for local elegance and sophistication; its downtown space at Woodlands and New York, however, is often the place for the bigger names.  The art here may feel more at home in a Manhattan-like loft atmosphere.  The two spaces synergize to create a buzz, and the sense that something important going on is, well, increasingly strong.

At the museum’s main facility, Richard Haas and William Crutchfield are on exhibit through April 5.  Richard Haas’ architectural drawings make you fall head-over-heels in love with architecture all over again.  His rigorous pen-and-ink drawings, dramatically colored, communicate a wild love affair with buildings.   His “Empire State Building,” done in 1997 after this icon had undergone a restoration effort, magnifies this building’s presence in one’s mind.   His “Chrysler Building,” in the same manner, captures this structure’s unparalleled aspiration to be the monument to man’s triumph of technology in the 20th century.

When I spoke with him recently about his work, Haas explained “I took about 12 years off of architecture to do other things.  I was working with a lot of the color field artists, like Richard Anuszkiewicz, doing collage and experimenting with the visual effects of pure color.   But something drew me back, made me return to architecture.”

Haas, who spent time interning with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen, went on to finish art school in Wisconsin.  This time in an architect’s atelier was formative, and Haas said “I knew I never wanted to be an architect…but I sure loved architecture.”  Richard Haas makes it OK to worship monuments, and in his book, institutions are OK.  We are allowed to see the city as an expression of the best of man’s creations; its beauty and aesthetic form has a power and majesty which Haas captures in his work.

Upstairs, William Crutchfield continues to toy with your taste for architecture and machine.   Science, that hallmark of contemporary western society, is seen through Crutchfield’s sly eyes as an object of social query.  Crutchfield has made a career of injecting irony into his views of technology; sometimes man wins, and sometimes the machine.   While his work is satirical, it is underlain still with a reverence towards the situation.  In this vein he’s like Haas:  neither is an iconoclast, but where Haas’ visions are unleavened appreciation for our institutions, Crutchfield hasn’t quite bought into the party line completely.

With gorgeously colored drawings, Crutchfield presents toy trains made of diamonds, owls transformed into various creatures, and the state of California on crutches (titled “Support California”).  His exquisitely rendered images have a studied casualness and a disarming spirit that renders huge machines in lovable ways.  Crutchfield rides the line between art and comic book, but his work is never repetitive nor is it cartoonlike.  His drawing ethic is so complete, so thorough, that a tiny sketch is entire narrative.   “From Logs to Light” depicts a log menaced by a saw, a little house patiently waiting for firewood hovering overhead.  The composition, and the dark night surrounding these earnest protagonists, is more balanced than many a larger painting in lesser hands.

Crutchfield’s questing eye has, for four decades, continued to uncover the paradox of man’s uneasy truce with technology.  Pairing the two artists makes for a nuanced tour between the sincere and the wry.  One comes from the experience refreshed, the dark shadows of science and technology disarmed, and, for at least the time being, fears about machines are banished to the dustbin.

For a singular, more personal relationship with the edge of the visual experience, look no further than the op-art world of Richard Anuszkiewicz.  By the mid 1960s, he had almost singlehandedly superseded the Abstract Expressionists, creating a new movement around the specific visual effects produced by color alone.  Coined “color field” by art critic Clement Greenberg, his work was groundbreaking, yet drew from a very long tradition by artists who knew how to manipulate perception with color.  Anuszkiewicz caps the Museum’s suite of work with a deeply moving body of work.

A student of the legendary color theorist Josef Albers, Anuszkiewicz declined the brushy, drippy style in vogue with the “action painters” like Jackson Pollock.  Instead, a sensuous drama takes place within one’s mind upon viewing his color studies.   Sensuous, because the viewer moves to activate an effect of the eye; sensuous also because multiple effects scintillate the mind while viewing a painting of his, effects at once primitive and sophisticated at the same time.

Stand in front of a painting such as the monumental “Mardi Gras,” a recent color study in his great tradition.  In the center, a tiny pink square sets up a series of concentric bands alternating pink, scarlet, mint, vermilion, and cobalt blue.  As you slowly step back, the colors effervesce and begin dancing.  The painting’s name become self-evident; the chromatic vibration is as close to retinal New Orleans jazz as one can imagine.  This is a personal, private experience, one that is impossibly diluted when viewing his work online or in books.  It is best experienced with the actual painting, and his shows attract a pilgrimage of artists searching for the true use of color.

Anuszkiewicz has stayed consistent with his early experiments throughout his career, and in this exhibit, an astonishing evolution of technique is available.  His 1990 “Inner Warm and Inner Cool” took his flat paintings into the third dimension with narrow, thin flutes painted in two interlocking parallelograms.  The resulting gallery wall peeking through each of the two open forms is, indeed, tinted by the colors surrounding it.

Richard Anuszkiewicz alludes to architecture in his work, more subtly perhaps than either Crutchfield or Haas.  His fascination with the fluted column comes through in many of his more recent works, and the implication of three-dimensional space – the province of architects – is made in two dimensional studies.  Taken together, the three are worth a visit by anyone concerned about the built environment, the importance of visual aesthetics, and our obsession with technology.

Implications of color, architecture, and science are woven together in the three artists’ work at the Museum of Art – DeLand.  The rich history of these ideas, dating back to the 1960s and earlier, are handed to viewers with no pretensions or spin.  The conversation about this art has tied into aesthetic questions on the lips of many today, and so once again the butterfly effect has proven itself true.

Boiling hippos

Awash with newfound prosperity, pent-up demand unleashed like a pack of hungry wolves, this post-recessional period is superficially similar to postwar America.  Returning GIs, who suffered deprivation for as long as fifteen years (first the Great Depression and then the war effort), bought cars and houses and anything they could get their hands on.  Today, we’re officially in the same place.  Unofficially, however, we are in a very different place and this inside-outside contrast will direct us into a very different future.

Postwar prosperity was accompanied by a belief in science and the acceptability of exploring very interior themes. Science, as we all know, won the war!  And Freud and Jung taught us all about the subconscious and the inner self.  Both frontiers were fresh, new and exciting.  Today, having been burned at the stove with the atom bomb and psychoanalysis, we’ve drawn our hands back and petulantly suck our burned fingers, not sure where to put them next.
For a brief period in the 40s through the 60s, the interior of the human psyche was freely explored by artists and writers.  I’m looking for the very beginning of this trend.  I think I’m close.
Reading the postwar writers is like like taking a hot shower after standing naked in the snow.  Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsburg, Paul Bowles, J. D. Salinger, Paul Goodman and others seem infused with both optimism about the future and confidence in exploring the frontiers of interior existence.  After reading a Bowles novel, coming back to the reality of the early twenty-first century is a deceleration into a sense of quiet dismay.
At any time has society experienced such a loss of faith in the future as today? We imagine global warming, nuclear apocalypse, the end-times; we stand by and allow our children to be gunned down, for god’s sake – we stand by while the greediest class ever has stolen our financial future and created a permanent class of paupers.  The early 21st century will go down in history as having lost faith in the future and, as Kenneth Boulding said, will soon lose its capacity to govern itself in the present.
People seem blissfully unaware of this predicament.  We will stumble forward into the future some way, somehow, without realizing what is missing until it is gone.  Like the apocryphal hippos boiled alive in their tanks, we seem helpless to escape, fatalistically tied to our fate as a circus fire rages all around.