Design in a new era

Global design award winner Florida Hospital for Women, designed by Richard Reep with a team at VOA Architects, is now being scheduled for its fifth design tour by world-class architects and designers.  The tour will take place later this spring, and details will be added to “upcoming appearances”.

July 3 is the expected opening date for the Rita, the experimental residence under construction in Sarasota, Florida.  This residence advances the sufficiency and minimalilsm principles of Sarasota School Architecture, and ties them to a contemporary zen-approach to materialism and constructability.  An opening party will be announced shortly.

Recently, it was my pleasure to provide “A Design History of Winter Park” which has been requested for a fall “Parlor Series” at Casa Feliz.  The talk may be adapted a bit, but the topic is interesting and not well covered by current literature.

“Interim Form” debuted at the Art Gallery at Mills Park, featuring the art of Dina Mack and Richard Reep.  Concrete sculptures were my contribution to this gallery.  The gallery is about to release a documentary about the exhibit, details upcoming.

I will be going back into the classroom on May 23 to teach ENV 191, “Humanscapes,” which is basically the design history of the city.  Since the Olin Library was unable to find room in their tiny computer servers to keep any of the course reserves, we will be doing a very hands-on course with fewer readings.  It might be better anyway.

I am fortunate to have been commissioned to prepare a design for the Zion Hill Fellowship Hall, which I will do with my brother, architect John Reep.  This is an exciting urban design and architectural design opportunity.

And finally, personally, I am taking a step forward in moving towards minimalism and hope to announce an architectural practice in a newer, smaller location this summer.  As families mature, typically they purchase houses larger and larger.  We are going against the trend – bifurcating – by intentionally buying a house that is smaller.  With a family of 3, we will be able to reduce our basis, our debt, and free ourselves up to make and to travel.

 

2017 is the year of….

Visualizing 2016 was fairly easy at the very end.  Encouragement to visualize 2017 has yet to bring forth any strong image.  Avoidance is probably the  most appropriate feeling to name at this point.

The fear of purging, and letting go, defined the end of the last year.  However if my mantra “trust in the waste stream” means anything, it means that you must put into the waste stream some things, in order to get back some others.  As a dedicated waste farmer, I’ve harvested more than my share of the bounty, from chicken coops to rotten fence parts to interesting metal hoses to the lacy, beautiful structure that holds waste itself.  The waste stream has been good to me.

It was an inner struggle to accept that one must give back; but in the end, the giving back was accomplished.  Not just any waste receptacle, but the most holy All Saints Episcopal Dumpster received a high offering of my last eighteen years (plus) of labor in the studio.  Everything from crampled little pencil sketches to western spirit houses to huge oil rigs are now flowing in the waste stream off to a far better place where they can be useful to others.

Art criticism is a dwindling breed of scatology with few practitioners, and perhaps even fewer readers.  Picking apart the mostly dried-up matter excreted from art studios is an especially obscure form of scatology.  One hopes to glean something about what the artist’s mind ingested and a bit about the artist’s locale and influences, much like deducing an animal’s diet, territory, and gut chemistry from its leavings.  Seeds pass through an animal,  and are nourished in its droppings to sprout.  The artist ingests ideas and expresses them in a sculpture, painting, or other form of art, to blossom in a culture or age.

I spoke with a highly talented artist in his studio today.  He revealed a bit about his process, which involves being careful about what to make art about to begin with.  When he is painting or drawing, he does some editing along the way, especially towards the end.

It is this editing that is so important.  The first principle is to hold your tongue.  You don’t have to vocalize everything that comes into your head to begin with; but if you do, the process of filtering it so that what is stated is true and correct remains important, even in today’s facebook-twitter-going live world.

The second principle is to know what needs to be edited.  The hundredweight of art that I removed from multiple studios required editing.  Even if it didn’t, it is too late now and there is no time to look back.

This artist conceded that a couple of times he had been bewildered by what he had made, putting it in the bottom of the drawer and not pulling it out for a while.  I thought about that and whether I was bewildered by what I had made.  Much of it is fine work that I believe will stand the test of time, but much more was simply not.  Removing it releases a burden from my back, the burden of having to portage them onward, and the further burden of owning up to them.  If you want to look at them, go to the “art” tab and browse.  Most of them are documented there.

I saved some of the better oil rigs, the bigger Thai scrolls, and a few odds and ends that I am still proud of.  The microbooks, steampunk stuff, and many of the stentorian, scolding paintings are gone.  No demi-chromaloids will make it to the next land.  Fractal string sculptures in old desk drawers are now disappeared, except for the single one that was purchased and hangs (hopefully) on another artist’s wall.

Other advice this teacher gave:  travel light.  Good advice.

This is a bit of an ode to the lost art, but moreover it is a bit of an aria about the coming year as well.  A lot of baggage has been released, not just my own.  I experienced, just for a moment, an uplifting feeling related to this.  The feeling passed but it will be back once again.

No clear picture of 2017 has yet formed.  The year ended with uncertainty on a range of different scales.  The four cylinders of the engine continue to fire; the direction of travel will become clear soon enough.

 

 

 

Report from the coffee frontier

Expectations of good coffee steer one away from brightly lit convenience stores and towards the grungy, independent holes that carefully cultivate that underground feel.  I’m grabbing the wheel back from these expectations, and steering towards the convenience stores.  The diminutive proprietor of the Shell sold me a delicious cup of coffee this morning.  He had made it himself a bit earlier.  It was strong and hot.

A dapper older gentleman in a convenience-store tunic, he combs his hair back.  When I came in, he was in the far corner and moved quickly around to the counter.  It’s a self-service program, at a clean white counter across the shop from the front door.  You grasp the styrofoam cup, and it resists unlocking from its neighbor, such is the delicious static electricity that nests them together like lovers.  There was only one carafe of coffee.  The lid is a classic eighties design, thin translucent plastic.

At the register, I gave the proprietor a big grin.  He took my two dollars and handed over change with a hint of a smile under his moustache.  That’s probably about as much facial expression as one could expect early on a rather dreary Sunday morning.  His little cash wrap has no place for tips, so I pocketed the coins and left.  I didn’t ask to take his picture.  Last week, when I asked his wife, she shook her head no.  This couple is so zen that they refuse to be recognized as part of the A-Park coffee trail.

Last week, I realized that I had fallen into a trap.  I was so dedicated to a single place that I started taking it for granted, and it started taking me for granted too. We were like an old married couple, bickering but accepting of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  But it had become an overly sensitive spouse with bad habits, and it finally wore me out.  Making a customer feel like the Other is not Stardust.  Ordering an artist to take his stuff down NOW, before his show is over, is not Stardust.  So I left.

It was disloyal.  Stardust was my second home.  It’s partly where I raised my kid.  It was my office during the recession.  Each time I tried something new as an artist, Stardust was where I hung it first.  Stardust is the seed inside the core of my manuscript “The Soul of the Tropical City”.  It was where I brought travelers like Joel Kotkin passing through our city.  Like hundreds of other loyal customers, it felt like it was partially mine.

Knowing this is a shared feeling gives one a sense of deep satisfaction, and a sense of the meaning of the word “community.”  I perceive injury to this community from without and wrote about this last week.  Having shared so much together, it was a surprise to be on the receiving end of suspicion.  It was the final straw to be given the “get out of my way, artist, I’m busy and important” treatment.

America suddenly soured like a quart of old milk.  The theory that “Stardust became what whoever coming in needed it to be” might hold true here.  For some, it needs to be a place for public accusations and for reflecting the new tribalism.

This led to a confession on my part and a decision to seek new adventures.  A few days later, one of my editors wrote a touching paean to Stardust.  One act follows the other in gloomy succession.

 

 

 

 

 

Suspicion and discontent

Only a few weeks after the ugly, populist right revealed itself, a certain bunker mentality has already surfaced at key locations within the geography of the city.  Where there was warmth, one feels coolness in the air, a little less eye contact, briefer conversations, a sharper tone.  We’ve been burned badly, those of us who practice tolerance and inclusiveness and bend our lives towards mutual sustainability, but this is no time for recriminations or succumbing to the temptation to snip at one another.

We must expand our tolerance even further, and recognize that true inclusiveness really means everybody.  At the same time, there is a subtle upswing in other places too.  Just around the corner from Stardust lies three convenience stores, ostensibly gas pump backdrops.  It’s time to get to know the coffee choices around here, and expand my horizons a bit.

The mood in these colorful, brightly lit stores is upbeat, and it shows how the two different streams of society intermingle within very small spaces of one another.  In the 7-eleven, Rhonda and Lexi posed for the camera, shoulder to shoulder with big grins on their faces. When asked who made the coffee, Rhonda announced “I did!”  Convenience store coffee is good.

Around the corner, Elizabeth briefed me on her complicated coffee system at the National Food Mart. When I asked her for a picture, she shrugged.  “Yeah, sure,” and broke into a sweet, disarming smile.  Lotto, beer, and cigarettes figure big in these places; our small weaknesses are their small profit. For the workers in these stores, there’s a coming-out, a sense of “yeah, well, we’re cool now,” a new position being cautiously assumed.

Is it the surprise, the swift triumph of the unhip, that has suddenly put a bounce in their step?  The uniform-clad cashiers of our vices are happier, a little more hopeful, in these heady days after the election.

It is Stardust which now feels dour and tragic. Avoidance of eye contact was once a game practiced at 7-eleven; now it is practiced at Stardust.  At one time, the scene at Stardust was open, with shouts of greeting and smiles.  A boisterous and diverse crowd kept a gentle, Haight-Asbury vibe going.  It was improvisational, a do-it-yourself kind of culture. John, the retired engineer, mixed with hippie chicks, artists, writers and techies in for a cup and a jam.  DJs and photographers met to plan out a photo shoot.  Salesmen sat with their laptops, looking at their sales leads for the day.  In the evening, kids did their geometry homework; old couples sat and drank wine.  The feel of a public house was rich and was ripe.

This openness is what I love about Stardust, it has a sense of shared ownership and a mutual agreeableness that we are all in it together.  It suits me, as I move in a wide range between laborers and one percenters.  In these days of looking backward at how things went wrong, a veil of grimness seems to separate us now.  Stardust is lately tinged just a bit with the atmosphere of all convenience stores.  It is tinted with the grimness of losers.

This grimness of losers was once the province of convenience store workers, hanging their heads, ringing up gas sales, condoms, smokes.  They knew their place, and it was pretty far down the class system.  Condemned to shapeless, garish uniforms, convenience store workers were the losers, especially in the hip and cool neighborhood of Audubon Park.  Everyone on Corrine Drive outranked the convenience store worker.  The only caste lower than convenience store clerk was possibly convenience store night clerk.

Life at the bottom of the social pyramid was bad enough, but especially the Audubon Park social pyramid, what with its ultra-cool scene of independent record stores, custom beer taps, movie production guys, East End Market, for christ’s sake–a hipster convenience store in drag–and, naturally, it was all anchored by  Stardust Video and Coffee.  For the convenience store clerk in this neighborhood, a special hell was your lot.  High school diploma, if you’re lucky, making nine oh five an hour selling stupid stuff to pretty liberal arts school students, techies wearing glasses that cost six months of your wages, bourgeois bohemians.  It rankled.  You suck.

Back at Stardust, the post-election mortification has given way to the next phase of loser-mentality:  recrimination.  Now, for the first time ever, I’ve been the recipient of green-shaming:  “Where’s your cup today, Richard?” after I asked for a coffee and committed the green sin of not bringing in my own reusable mug (the top wouldn’t come off that morning so I left it at home).  This never used to happen at Stardust, where they are usually happy to sell you a disposable cup.  The barista, however, got a little dig in that morning, fingering me as the Other.

I do not have to prove to anyone that I am not the Other.  That charge just won’t stick.  It’s a symptom of being a loser, possibly, to accuse:  fingerpoint at someone, label them as Other, and sulk.  During my day, I sit at a desk and think about those all around me in a modern, white-collar office, and how good we all have it:  still, for many, the sense that it just isn’t good enough caused people to send a signal in the voting booth.

People are tired of being the unhip, the uncool; people who are green-shamed are tired of it.  Enough is enough.   So this bunker mentality has taken over at Stardust, and places like it as well.  The wagons are circled, and anyone who isn’t inside the ring is the Other. Greener than thou, my sister and brother; we know who we are and we know who you are.

This is not the road to inclusiveness, and perhaps the “in-crowd” at Stardust never was very inclusive to begin with.  If you want to see real people of color, go into the unhip convenience stores all around.  African-American, Asian-American, and Latina-American.  Inclusiveness means a society where all of our people, even the convenience store clerks, are included.

At Stardust, one could easily convince oneself of being in surroundings of openness and diversity.  This bubble of comfort sadly diverged from reality.  Outside the bubble, the Lexis and  Rhondas and Elizabeths have finally gotten a break.  The bubble they were decidedly NOT inside of has burst.

So I’m taking a break from the hip and the cool, and creating my own hip and cool with people in 7-eleven, National Food Mart, and Shell.  I frequent these places often, for they have things that I need:  gas, air, vacuum, batteries, aspirin. Stardust offers nothing practical like that anyway.  I’ve already introduced myself to a few of the clerks, and found them to be very nice.  I haven’t been subjected to green-shaming, and probably won’t be.  They’re professional, they make it snappy, and they smile.  I’m enjoying getting out of my comfort zone and creating a zone of inclusivity that’s larger.

It is weak and incorrect to circle the wagons and point fingers at The Other and continue this divisiveness that has caused such a big warfare in our hardened, weary society.  It is the sure road to further isolation and loss.  The secret is that there really are no losers and winners, and to act like there are just makes more.  Instead, acting like we are all people with lives, with our own aspirations and fears, is a more interesting road to travel.  This is not about populist politics or presidents; rather, it is about the need to re-invent the concept of a society where everyone wins.

 

 

Dean Rowe’s MOSI museum today

H. Dean Rowe’s Museum Of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, desibuilt in 1978, was once a lonely outpost on Fletcher Avenue just before USF.  Today it’s surrounded by strip commercial, and the museum itself has expanded. The original structure is now a science magnet school with a new museum and other institutional facilities, but Rowe’s original remarkable structure has stood the test of time and created a singular space in Florida.

Rowe's structure, viewed from the plaza connecting it to a later addition

The building itself is dominated by two very large space frame roofs.  These are supported by cylindrical columns, some quite tall, that vary in length to allow the roof to fold down on its two long sides.  Rowe’s original concept was to shape the air, thermally venting it up between the two space frames and out.

The roof planes are not massive but rather have delicacy about them.  There’s something about the way the latticelike roof structure perches on the columns that is light, rather than heavy.   It serves to de-emphasize the roof even though it is large and dominates the space around it.

Under this roof, a series of trays stack up – two on one side, and three on the other.  The walls of these trays are infilled with concrete block, and all of this is left natural unpainted.  The scale of the roof makes these components, in turn, seem human in scale.  The softly curving ramp is a sculptural element at one end.

Interior space of the museum

Exposed utility systems – ducts, conduits, pipes – crisscross and are painted different colors to highlight them, a la Pompidou Center.  The building is, in fact, a subtle reference to this iconic Rogers & Piano museum.

Later, Antoine Predock added to the building, allowing Rowe’s original work to be converted to a school.  Rowe’s museum was a terrifically hard builing to build an addition to.  The way the roof slid over the building’s edges and captured vast amounts of space on either side must have been difficult to add to.  The two buildings touch but do not have a public access between them, and the only experience of them together is the plaza on the south side.

Predock’s roof forms and natural concrete reference Rowe’s design, but are subtly different.  Concrete corners in Predock’s are completely filled, rather than cut at 45 degree angles, a more difficult task for the workers but making the forms and shapes feel crisp.  Predock used a lot of stainless steel for steps, wall, and roof material, a new material blending well with the other aesthetic.

Predock’s single expressive form is a sphere of blue curtainwall, which is partly peeled and layered, to house a movie theater.  Occuring at one end of the structure, it provides a punch.

Unfortunately, every other addition since Predock has tended to dilute the power of the earlier work.  There’s a one-story blue roof building that looks like a shopping center; a ropes course structure that looks like it came out of a catalog, and a few other structures that clump around the main building.  Most stay a respectful distance.

Rowe’s structure is very, very simple in design, but hard for a viewer to grasp.  It took a few simple rules and made very unique spaces, a singularity of design, and Predock’s museum doesn’t really make things any clearerl  Like many of Rowe’s buildings, it references little in traditional architectural vocabulary, and instead creates its own completely.  This is one of its great strengths.  Only modern materials and technologies are used, and they are used to complete advantage:  the space frame was invented to carry very large spans, and it does elegantly.  Concrete was modernized to allow for unusual shapes and it has many; and the effect is a uncelebrated icon of twentieth century achievements.  The fact that it is in Florida simply reinforces the West Coast experimentalism that started with the Sarasota School in the 1940s and extended into a new generation.

I wish they took better care of Rowe’s  building, for it is full of dust and the walls are smeared with multicolored tropical mildew and goo.  At its base, the building has acquired the accoutrements of public schools – plastic playground equipment, chain link fences, random locked storage units.  It has the somewhat desultory air of a crashed airplane, its wings drooping over the landscape and reinhabited by innocent locals.

School bus dropoff area

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.