to channel the warmth of chaotic energy into order or form.
Order and form are the two rails on which architecture rolls. The newfound vigor of chaos derails architecture into black, deadend tunnels choked with soot, illimitable delays, and colorful desultory wrecks. At the end of nearly every day, after observing or managing chaos, I depart the scene with nothing to show for it. Nothing, except for small drawings.
Chaos is here to stay: meaningless bright adversity, overbearing dull beige banality, and the profligate urgent shrillness of spendthrift capitalism all create absurdity and waste beyond even Kafka’s wildest imagination. Arising out of this disorder come small bubbles of order, moments when one hand, temporarily unoccupied by the keyboard or the legal pad, can briefly roam free and make a connection between things that are separated.
This installation is a bank, a place where I deposit my dreams of escape. I participate in the warmth of chaotic energy without emotion; instead I invest emotions into small things, the open movement of my hand creating these dreams of escape. Meanwhile, order and form get restored.
Few, if any, of these are actual planes. They are dreams of aircraft, sketched during chaos; they are ways out. Tiny, quickly scratched blossoms of highly ordered objects, droplets of comfort and calm.
F6F Hellcat model in cement
British twin engine fighter
early jet air scoop
Comically fat Russian jet
Slightly comical American fighter
Russian fighter flying overhead
BAC Caravelle ghost
Fighter, probably Russian
Sub patrol aircraft
Navy fighter caught with propeller
Bomber on crumpled paper
Dive bomber far away
Russian transporter tail
Eastern European jet trainer
Russian jet of some kind
Early jet fighter coming at you
The one and only B-58
Two-engine passenger plane
Bit of a carrier-based navy plane
Early Swedish jet trainer studies
Another eastern European jet trainer
Kind of a British fighter-bomber
Yet another eastern European jet trainer
Russian turboprop bomber with Russian jet transporter flying in formation
Ancient tabby marks Florida’s sense of place. Tabby is the colloquial name for an early Spanish colonial form of cement. A cake of sand, lime, shells, and water created an architecture of walls and forts. Some of this is still extant today.
This series of contemporary tabby adds manmade materials in the same mixture. Lime, or calcium hydroxide, is the main ingredient of Type I Portland Cement.
Shells served as aggregate in Spanish tabby. The aggregate helps bind the cement together, increase volume. Aggregate also helps break up clods of lime when mixing. The Titan that I mixed for this series was pure Type I with no aggregate, and it was very laborious to mix it to a smooth, even consistency.
I harvested the shells and the manmade material from Siesta Key Beach in July 2015, off the coast of Sarasota. The manmade portions in this first piece occur in approximately the same density as found on the beach. This indicates that the proportion of natural-to-manmade material on the beach is pretty high.
This design for the Solid State house is an exercise in sufficiency. It will adhere to the tenets of the Sarasota School – a light touch upon the landscape, lightness in structure and massing, and a specific and intimate response to the unique West Coast of Florida. It also carries on Paul Rudolph’s tradition of experimentalism with materials, styles of living, and use of space.
Integrated with this tradition is the reduction of waste. The Solid State House reduces wasted space and construction waste.
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.
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.
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.
After exhausting the local libraries for Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsburg, Bowles, et al, an immersion into American fiction and poetry of the 1940s and 1950s has made newer fiction particularly bland. I’ve tried newer stuff – novels that have won all sorts of awards – and find them to be soupy, warmed-up oatmeal compared to what was going on right after World War 2. In 21st century America, our anxieties and fears have made our stomachs so twitchy that soupy, warmed-up oatmeal may be the only thing we can really digest anymore.
Oddly, I find recent architecture the same. Knowing how the software works, I see the buildings celebrated in magazines as sketchup models, or Revit masses, and not particuarly well designed ones either.
A house under construction close by here has a splitface concrete block pillar, with a girth about eight feet or so. It rises up behind a “frame” and is now being decorated with a little medallion of reclaimed wood. This passes for modern architecture today, I suppose. There isn’t much reason for the pillar, except to stop the rather bad chi coming at the house’s front from a cross street. It seems like gestural architecture.
What was once a design ethic, a “no-style” style, has now become just another half-hearted manipulation of hipster materials like reclaimed wood, draped onto forms that are easy to create in Sketchup. Make a floating rectangular mass, offset the four faces by a foot or so, push the center rectangle in until it becomes a void, and hey presto! there’s a form.
Meaningless Modernism isn’t half as bad, however, as the ungainly, flat traditional housing that passes for shelter elsewhere in the city. The marketplace has reduced every historical design style down to a vague, generic box with lots of gables facing the street, large windows out of proportion to the size of the building, and a kind of demoralizing noncommittal character. They are usually finished with wattle-and-daub (stucco, or whatever you may want to call it) and are busy and awkward without fitting onto their lots or sharing any dialogue with their neighbors.
I’m not all about architecture that has to shout “look at me,” and I feel like buildings that behave well together do make a nice neighborhood. So many of the newer contributions to our streets, however, regardless of style, seem to be deaf and dumb, with empty eyes wide open staring at the street or the sky in a kind of atavistic wonder.
It is the combination of the primitive and the very affluent which is the deadening effect. These houses are not even dingbats. They aren’t big enough to be mcmansions; instead they are just zombies.
And speaking of zombies, the new America of the 21st century has taken some getting used to. Gone are the quirky little side streets…gone are the people who live in the swamp, off the grid and disconnected from the mainstream…gone are the unpretentious pockets of honest architecture in small towns.
Instead, we are now all six-laned, large-turning-radius, long-traffic-light America. We are now the America of the Commercial Strip. We have managed to obliterate regionalism, in favor of the American Road. You don’t have local color anymore, because local color just gets you into trouble. All the tiny little restaurants must now vy for facebook likes and off-the-beaten-path hipster chic social media feeds.
Instead, I am learning to love our new culture. American culture is Starbucks and Target Urbanism, and our brands give us sanctuary. If you do try something local and independent, it better measure up to these standards, or woe to the retailer who tries to carve a different pathway.
I am learning to love an America that just feeds off of itself, in a sort of cannibal consumerism that remains the envy of the world. Thronging sidewalks are not found in downtown Orlando, or downtown anywhere, because in downtowns, they still produce stuff – lawyers produce lawsuits, financial types produce wealth, and generally service industries produce, well, something useful.
No, in our new, 21st century America, our most intensely populated urban scenes are places like South Beach and Downtown Disney. Today, at downtown Disney, the avalanche of visitors was clearly a sign that we have arrived. Urbanism is now a fine leisure activity, and we have reached the level where we consume urban experiences as the most elite way of expressing our prosperity.
We drive, park, and then walk along the downtown Disney boardwalk, not for a service, not for a doctor’s appointment or a meeting with work colleagues or to make widgets in a factory. Instead, we do this just…to do it. We lick ice cream, avoid strollers and plod along the sidewalk because we like it.
The 21st century America is one with unprecedented leisure time and wealth, and we are using this to dine, entertain, and shop with our fellow human beings.
This is a highly complex, sophisticated 21st century America. Regulations have never been higher. Every aspect of our lives has some kind of code or law governing how we deal with it, whether “it” is food, a service, driving, parking, walking, seeking healing, expressing ourselves in different ways. Dozens — no, thousands of laws and codes govern each step of our journey, much like the airwaves vibrate with thousands of unseen radio frequencies.
We are paradoxically moving at a frenetic pace, and yet we feel so often at a standstill, a paradox that produces a uniquely 21st century anxiety and fear. We are paradoxically free to prosper any way we can, and yet we are so constrained with laws and codes, further increasing our anxiety and fear. The boredom and lack of variety that arises from the triumph of American consumerism is also a curse. And yet we revel in it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.