The new homogeneity

"Graph Paper Architecture" by Saul Steinberg 1954

The explorer in all of us delights in moving beyond civilization’s edge, seeking a place where human structures dissolve into the wilderness.  For me, the return from the Everglades had a different effect:  I reveled in nature’s rich variety, in contrast with our current urbanized form that is remarkably homogenous.  Anywhere in Florida, and much of the country, one experiences a new sense of sameness in the texture and pace.  America has entered a period when our buildings, roads, and infrastructure are uniform, differing only in the details.  We live in a very standardized America today, and this is the quiet strength of our country.

If there is any doubt about the new homogeneity, look no farther than the commercial strips that have come to dominate the 21st century experience.  These strips are our marketplace, the town square writ large, and are a study in careful, intentional uniformity. Commercial America, from New York to California, is smoothly uniform in both large scale and details to a startling degree, differentiated only by local geography.  Although criticized for its aesthetic monotony, our commercial environment unifies our national experience.  The endless asphalt strip expresses the contemporary American lifestyle, a way of ordering our space that represents our participation in the high-energy global economy.  It’s ugly, but it works; so goes consumerism.

Businesses competing for the customer dollar ensure familiarity and efficiency, and this uniformity extends to the design of the store, both inside and out.  From the front door to the street, a precise series of moves are choreographed around the invisible practices of safety, security, and barrier-free flow from the car door to the cash register. All of these dictate uniformity of design, a certain monolithic character, which moves the customer effortlessly from merchandise to the point of sale to the driveway.

standardized design

The driveway leads to the street.  While we yearn for alternatives to the car, we still cling to its super-mobility.  This influence begets a rigid, standardized design to which all pavement is built. Lights, signs, intersections, and the pulse and rhythm of the road all become one.  Gone, for the most part, are local eccentricities such as stoplights turned sideways; arrived are broad, well-lit roadways with the same signals everywhere, built with the future in mind.  This, again, is a strength.  Americans have always been mobile, and with this standardization, effortless freedom of movement allows a state of supermobility to be imagined, if not quite achieved.

Meanwhile, America’s building industry climbed a series of regulatory steps in the last several generations, and today’s built environment is more uniform and less specific to its particular locale, instead taking on a vague, broad national character that is barrier-free and safe.  Starting with the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and continuing today with the International Building Code, standardization has become a quiet but powerful movement.

The ADA sought to remove the localized, obstacle-ridden geography that restricted a large population with sensory or mobility difficulties from having access to buildings and places.  Since then, a substantial portion of our constructed world has been built with these rules, and older buildings have been adjusted to remove barriers.  With this act, deliberate intent has caused much of America to look the same, from the way our sidewalks rise up from the street to the size of our public bathrooms.

More broadly, building codes became standardized too.  In the 1990s, the International Building Code converged three regional codes into one.  Building codes, which go back to Hammurabi’s time, have evolved into exquisitely complicated texts, annotated like the Talmud and as complex as the tax code.  With the real estate development economy normalized at a national scale, it became more efficient to deliver the same product everywhere, rather than customize an office or a store to local eccentricities.  This sameness, again, allows supermobility to meet sales and productivity metrics from one place to another, and indeed smooths the path for a new, migratory America to evolve.  This again is a strength, if efficiency is any measure of things.

Local codes still customize structures to particular locales; California requires resistance to seismic activity, and Florida protects against hurricanes.  A lot of idiosyncratic localisms have been done away with, however; nuances that did little to protect anybody.   A wood building in the Midwest, for example, was called a Type Five building, while in the south it was Type Six, with accompanying detailed descriptions differing in little details.  These were all melded into one wood-frame building type by the new code, simplifying national-scale construction and design, and eliminating wastefulness.  Like the standardization movement that occurred in the 1920s, this convergence of codes promotes a common system of definitions and measures of firmness and safety.

Intertwined with this rather massive regulatory convergence is, of course, the globalization of the economy.  Standardization of materials was critical to be able to import key products from overseas manufacturing, and for a national real estate developer to assure similar costs from coast to coast.  Sameness is a virtue, from an accounting perspective.

Should this sameness be doubted, interview any offshore visitor about their American experience, and while American behavior may generate complaints, the American built environment inspires awe and respect.  “Why can’t we have this in our country,” more than one international guest has bitterly questioned me, usually pointing to a clean, well-ordered aspect of place that we take for granted.  “America,” stated one South American to me recently, “is still the safest place to buy real estate, because of your standardization.”  Monotony and safety make for a dull sense of place, but great property values.

How this came about is a study in our faith in the future.  America has always had a sense of faith that things will get better even in the darkest of times.  This faith in the future seems lost today if one focuses merely on the surface, and the general deterioration of our national conversation.   Our actions, however, are different than our words, and our actions – widening roads, consolidating codes, standardizing infrastructure – are those of a people in the process of perfecting our built environment.  Only a people who care about the future would be doing this.

American roads and buildings are not precious; we are not a sentimental people, by and large, when it comes to our physical environment.  There is emerging out of the past a certain American style of place that is a product of our society’s character.

The monolithic cartesian grid of the 21st century

This style of place is barrier-free, safe, and guarded well against disaster.  This character transcends the superficial notion of “style” and goes more to a uniform, shared sense of place.  Monotonous, yes; as all standardization tends to become.  It goes, however, to a greater value we place upon planning and design.

A positive byproduct of this style of place is equity; roads (except toll roads) can be travelled by all, and buildings are built safely for all to dwell.  Another positive byproduct of this style is efficiency, speeding up the process of rolling out new infrastructure.  A final byproduct of this style is the future, giving our children’s generation a simplified infrastructure with one operating manual.

What our progeny does with this infrastructure is up, of course, to them.  Imperial Rome standardized town-making just as it lost the ability to govern itself; whether we overcome this tendency is still an open question.  This uniformity is explicit today, and will be a tacit scaffold upon which a unique, more localized future can be built, celebrating the specific geography and society of each individual place.  Suffocating monotony can perhaps give way to flexibility, creativity, and character expressing diversity and culture as we move into the future.

The Solid State House – update

This is the evolutionary step for the Solid State House.  On an empty lot, the only way to remain sustainable is to buy a used building and move it onto this lot.  The perfect used building is being prepared for shipment and will arrive on the lot later this year.

Conceptual Front Facade

The front of the Solid State House will re-interpret the original waveform into a new waveform, keeping true to the original design intent.

wave form

Expressing wave geometry into a new architectural form is a high design statement but still more about growth than development.  Instead, expressing the wave geometry in a material -aluminum – that is already high recycled content will stay in keeping with the notions of sustainable development.

Numerous practical advantages will make this waveform, compressed into a tight, two-dimensional unit, a stronger statement of the values of sustainability.  Not only is it using fewer resources, it gives the lot a lighter, more delicate touch than the original heavy design.

Conceptual side view

This lighter, more delicate touch also respects the lot with a crawl space solution rather than importing a great deal of fill dirt.  The building itself will be suspended about 32″ above the ground, allowing for ventilation underneath.

Future street view

Trust in the waste stream: cement works update

March 2015 – On Virginia Drive in Audubon Park, a homeowner graciously donated old plywood sheathing.  He already helpfully cut it into segments that were perfect to construct boxes for the concrete forms.  This anonymous Orlando homeowner became an unwitting collaborator in this new art project.

By the time I found all this plywood, I had enlarged the idea and planned the project in a sort of “design development” phase with these drawings.  They were definitive.  A heavily textured, horizontally grooved surface modulates with a smoother and more monolithic surface.  I wanted them large enough to have some presence, and be able to pour them in three lifts.  I hope that each lift will seep down to the lift below and interact with it. Each set of 3 blocks will be poured in 3 lifts.

I want the lifts to be evident in the final product so I will loosen the form around the cement before pouring each upper lift, so that it seeps down the sides of the lift below.  The purpose of this is to articulate, in cement, a 2x3x3 mathematics.

Sketch of blocks 1, 2, and 3

In my quest for the strategic incremental, I’ve created a few simple rules and then used these rules to make a specific event happen.  A grooved, textured wall might be interrupted by a window, a smooth wall, or an embed.  That’s the rule.  It’s simple.  The embed must be a hard thing – metal, or glass.  That’s all.

In the 2x3x3 mathematics, there are 18 variations on this rule.  As it turns out, the specific events have been tightly interlaced and follow one another in sequence.  I suppose that’s inevitable when working in such a small spaces.  As the old saying goes, it’s a game of inches.

Sketch of blocks 4, 5, and 6

The point is, that these drawings do not dictate the exact end product.  Unlike architecture, which functions in the realm of the rational comprehensive, there is a lot more freedom in this way of thinking.  The drawings act as only a rough guide.  They’re the start.

The strategic incremental works really well with wide open eyes and ears. That is, it works when you are attuned to your surroundings.  You can hear the voices outside your head, and see the things outside of your brain.  These two activities seem less and less frequent these days.  They’re really important. I’ve developed an ability – primitive, I must admit – to stay quiet and still, and sure enough I can see and hear the things that really matter.

In this case, after making these sketches, I started to sensitize myself to the things that would be needed to realize them in cement.  Amazingly, bit by bit, the pieces have come to me, in a flow of materials that have appeared just at the exact right time.  Each material has appeared just when it was needed.  I had no premonition of the item beforehand; it was a case of totally being in the right place at the right time.  I have therefore been able to take these, incorporate them into the cement works, and flow smoothy from drawing to concrete without spending money.  Instead, I trust in the waste stream.

The half-inch plywood was suitably weathered and even had delicious organic white mold veined on one side.  I turned this inside, anticipating its surface pattern on the concrete.  The plywood was just on the verge of being too rotten and beat-up to use, so it was the perfect donation. The fact that I found it in this state – its first use complete, and its lifespan nearly over – just in time for constructing these forms was auspicious.  This meant that the rest of the material for the cement works would follow the same pathway.

In fact, writing now in June, that is exactly how the last three months have worked out. Incorporating any kind of found material into art is in itself an art form.  It has to do with being sensitive to the spirit of the material.  Like most people, I navigate through a blinding blizzard of urgent commercialism, hurrying to and fro, occupying my time with meetings and messages and deadlines and just-in-time delivery of drawings, delivering and picking up children, tapping on laptops and worrying about hundreds of little things.  In between, I can still hear the spirit of things, and these objects have come to me through listening carefully to their voices.

Oh, it’s about seeing them, too.  The plywood slabs shouted loud – I only had to back up a few feet to get them into the car.  They set the pace for the rest of the material I gathered across the next three months. I decided to build them upside down and pour into them from the bottom.  Various boxes, collected over the years, became the top shapes.  Their sizes didn’t much matter, as long as they worked together in the topology of the top.  Strategic incremental.

Closeup of form for blocks 1, 2.

After the forms were complete, a lull ensued in the voices.  Not too many were heard.  I hunted for foam.  At a party, when asked what I was doing, I even said “at the present moment, looking for foam,” and it paid off – by verbalizing it, the material apparated somewhat thereafter.  In the meantime, corrugated cardboard became form liner, and it represents the archeology of patience inside forms 1, 2, and 3.  I continued with the project using a second-tier material until the foam arrived.

I knew I needed a lot of foam, and I didn’t really know what I was looking for.  I was holding out for half-inch polyisocyanurate boards, blue if possible.  I’ve been working with this stuff since the 1990s as an art material and know my way around it.

But then on my way down US 27 one morning, I spied it.  First Foam, that was a great day.  A styrofoam cooler of some size was on the side of the road, and it took about 5 minutes to make the two u-turns to harvest it off of the shoulder.  After that, the foam continued to show up – more foam on US27, and then finally the roofing foam from a waste pile at a construction site.

The roofing foam came in late April.  It was a hot day and I intentionally parked beside a scrap pile of steel, wood, pipe scraps and foam.  The roofing foam was ordinary styrofoam and it had been sitting outside for months.  The sheets were quite large, and when I shoved them into the car, they stank.

I had to drive with the seat way back, scrunched down under the foam panel over my head.  I stopped to get gator jerky for Cooper – he had developed a taste for it after a trip to the Everglades.  I looked Polk County, rumpled and covered with foam dust, in the store.

But the foam turned out to be perfect for the use that I needed, to line the interior.  And finally, I tore the blue polyiso off of the wall and into the forms it all went.  There’s a little bit leftover.  When you’re working in strategic incremental, nothing should be precious.  When you’re dealing with found objects, the energy of the particular object can be overpowering if you let it.  Don’t let it.  I didn’t, and am glad for it.

All the while, I was waiting and listening and looking for some kind of metal reinforcing material. Just a few streets down, out by the trash, two fine rolls of green-painted wire grid fencing were rolled up and are the perfect reinforcing.  Didn’t even need to go back; by now I could see it and hear it and react smoothly in real time.

Interior of form for blocks 4, 5, and 6.  It's like an inside out architectural model.

I worked with this stuff today. It snips and bends easily, is about 2″  x 3″ so it fits into the forms and will make great reinforcing.  The leftover pieces are already inspiring smaller visions of found-object art; little versions of the reticulae and Michtam.

It is one thing to sketch out an idea and build a model of it.  It is entirely another to build an inside-out model of the space surrounding the object.  This remains the most difficult mental exercise yet encountered:  looking at a sketch of an object, imagining the form that needs to be built to pour concrete to make something look like that sketch.  It exercises a little-used part of my brain and I’ve gotten better at it, but not good enough yet.  This is the part of my brain that needs to “build up a body of work” as Susan League challenged me to do.  I’m still working on this.

Form for Block #4.

But I did it, as best as I could.  It could only take place in total quiet and removal of all distractions.  It was like doing higher math without pencil or paper; or tusseling with  a philosophy question.  Once I could finally visualize the shape, getting it into foam was typically simple.

The interior abutting faces were never sketched, but I imagined that these would be a place to be a little freeform – hopefully making a positive/negative shape implying a certain fitting-into.  This never really happened but what did happen was embeds.  Yes, embedded into the concrete will be a couple other materials – opaque milky glass and metal.

I haven’t been as aggressive with voids in this series, partly because they are devilishly difficult to reinforce around and to pour around.  There are voids around the place and they should work, but they are pretty straightforward.  It is the surface I’m concerned about this time around.

The last reinforcing should go in and a pour will be announced for a weekend in late June.  Many thanks to multiple homeowners and the bounty of a construction waste site for all the materials that flowed over to me during this process.