Sunday, January 20, 2013

SLOW ARCHITECTURE

Part 1: "That Building is SO Last Season!"

Of all the branches of art, architecture drags its feet the most in keeping up with changing styles.  Some fads have come and gone before buildings have bothered to take notice.

The reason is very simple: MONEY.

Taste and Art

Most of the arts (literature, painting, music, dance) are practiced by artists who make their own choices in matters of subject, taste and style.  Can't afford more canvas?  Paint on top of an old painting.  The worst that can happen to a painter who paints what the public doesn't [yet?] want is that the starving artist has to spend another year sleeping on a friend's couch.  And this is a risk painters are typically willing to take rather than spend their time doing the same ol' same ol'.

Most of whom we consider to be the great painters of the modern era have died in obscurity or poverty only to have their paintings sell for high prices years later when public taste has caught up with them.

  
Vincent Van Gogh's Irises (1889)
sold for $53.9M in 1987
Image in the public domain (U.S.)
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Abraham Walkowitz "starving" in his NYC studio, 1908
Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution via Flickr


Architects, however, are not painters.  And even if they create incredibly forward-thinking or unique designs, no amount of personal poverty will get these designs built unless there is a client willing to pay for them in the position of patron.



What exactly is a Patron?

There are very few patrons these days, especially for architecture.

The Catholic church (assisted by wealthy citizen families) used to be the patron to a handful of selected artists.  What would the history of sculpture, painting & architecture be without the patronage of the church for Michelangelo?  He may have not been thrilled with the restrictions of the commissions, but he was given enough freedom so that those of us admiring from the present can see his particular brand of genius in those works.  At the time he was asked to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it was "colored blue and decorated with gold stars" as was typical of the period. Who but Michelangelo could have come up with such an amazing new ceiling?  And, by the way, he had never done fresco painting before.

The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1511).
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons in the public domain (U.S.)
Sorry, I got distracted.... have a bit of a crush on the guy.

Michelangelo also came up with the solution to the dome at St. Peter's, which had been planned for generations but had not been thought feasible.

The only other massive dome completed since ancient time was by Brunelleschi in Florence a century earlier.  The church building was begun in 1296 in complete faith, with absolutely no idea of how to put a roof on it without buttresses.  A competition began in 1419 for the design of the dome, which would span over 140 feet.  When completed, the building itself came to be called just "Il Duomo" (The Dome).

Section (cut-through) drawing
of The Dome
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
in the Public Domain (U.S.)
Il Duomo at night.  2008
Image courtesy of Marcus Obal via Wikimedia Commons

This supercool story with its amazing setting of Florence in the 15th century is told in the most entertaining fashion by Ross King in Brunelleschi's Dome, published in 2001.  I can heartily recommend it.

"By all accounts, Filippo Brunelleschi, goldsmith and clockmaker, was an unkempt, cantankerous, and suspicious man-even by the generous standards according to which artists were judged in fifteenth-century Florence. He also designed and erected a dome over the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore-a feat of architectural daring that we continue to marvel at today-thus securing himself a place among the most formidable geniuses of the Renaissance. At first denounced as a madman, Brunelleschi literally reinvented the field of architecture amid plagues, wars, and political feuds to raise seventy million pounds of metal, wood, and marble hundreds of feet in the air. Ross King's captivating narrative brings to life the personalities and intrigue surrounding the twenty-eight-year-long construction of the dome, opening a window onto Florentine life during one of history's most fascinating eras."

Architectural Patrons vs. Architectural Clients


Now, for just a minute, can you imagine someone hiring an architect today to solve an architectural problem that had not yet been explored by science, with an almost unlimited budget and an almost assured failure?  This is what a "patron" of architecture would have to do.  A patron must not be merely wealthy, but superwealthy to be able to handle the risk of greatness.

It is no wonder typical architecture has "clients," instead, who want

  • what has been proven to be structurally stable, 
  • economically proven to hold value, and that is 
  • similar to what their competitors and/or neighbors have.  

Show me an artist who wants to create what is SAFE, what has been done before, and I will show you someone whose artistic spirit is broken.



Part 2: (On the Other Hand) Why SLOW is Good

Slow Food

There is a small but important worldwide movement going on called Slow Food.  Created in the 1980s in reaction to a McDonald's being opened in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Slow Food is meant to be the opposite of Fast Food:
Restaurant placard in Santorini
image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

  • seated (not on the go)
  • in good company (not solitary)
  • healthy
  • locally produced, with sources & methods known
  • simply prepared (not processed)
  • fresh
  • encouraging diversity & diversity of plants
  • grown/produced sustainably
  • etc.
Many beloved foods are being replaced by convenience food and industrial agriculture... this cannot be a good thing for civilization as a whole; or, frankly, me personally!

Slow Fashion


Unsurprisingly, some other groups have adopted the term "Slow."  In 2008, Kate Fletcher coined the term "Slow Fashion," in reaction to the disposable nature of fashion design & consumption.  Once something has been seen, it's already passe (outmoded)!  Slow Fashion is meant to be the opposite of good-for-only-one-season:
  • timeless
  • durable
  • of quality material and craftsmanship
  • repairing rather than disposing of damaged clothing
  • materials made from sustainable practices
  • "consumed" at a much slower rate -- buying less
  • exchanged/swapped rather than landfilled
  • adaptable to a variety of weather seasons
Slow Fashion.  Image courtesy of Polska Zielona Siec via Flicker.


Fashionistas seem like the kind of people who want hundreds of pairs of shoes and at least 20-30 new items each season (a season to me is winter, spring, summer fall, though I understand that there are eleven fashion seasons per year).  The target market here are people who really love their garments, not those who must have something new all the time.  Interesting concept, right?

Personally, I've been into vintage clothing since about the time I graduated high school.  Mama wanted to take me to Saks in downtown New Orleans and I wanted to hit that little Yvonne LeFleur boutique in the Quarter.  I figure if it's not in style now, it won't go out of style by next year either.  

Note: As I'm searching for an image to use for this section, I'm bombarded with fashion ads, one with the grabbing line, "WHAT'S WOW NOW."  Exactly.

Slow Architecture

While the term is still new (and hardly well defined), Slow Architecture has promise!

Sustainable architecture has already attempted to mainstream (can that be a verb?) sustainable materials and manufacturing processes, as well as eliminate toxic and carcinogenic chemicals from interiors (yes, this is still something to be concerned about).  Energy efficiency is a major resource and economic concern, and it can really only go in one direction over the long term: the Net Zero building, consuming only as much energy as it can produce.  
Sustainability for architecture covers a wide variety of topics (just see the perfectly bureaucratic green tool called LEED for an example).

What can Slow Architecture possibly add to this?  Aesthetics.  

  • Greenies encourage the reuse of buildings because it saves resources: Slowees might embrace old buildings because their materials (like old growth timber) and craftsmanship (like terra cotta sculpture) are extinct.
  • Greenies are all about material efficiencies while Slowees may lecture indefinitely on longevity.  If you make something that is timeless and durable, it will never be knocked down and replaced.
  • Plenty of Greenies love high tech solutions to every problem, but Slowees know that low tech solutions require less maintenance, and absolutely no calls to IT guys.  
  • Greenies have bought the consumerism-is-the-salvation-of-America tagline, while Slowees are savers and sharers and never in debt.  
  • Greenies build Energy Star homes and Slowees would build homes that will not be abandoned in an average of five years.  
George Weikert Farm, Gettysburg National Park.  Image courtesy of Icm1863 via Flickr

  • Slow Architecture is for people who intend to stick around awhile and adapt their home & property to their changing lifestyle needs over the duration of their own lives and their children's lives.
  • Slow Architecture doesn't worry about resale value and insist on painting every wall "contractor beige." 
  • Slow Architecture is not for flippers or starter homes or keeping up with the latest trends.
  • Slow Architecture is for breathing, experiencing, and living in.
  • Portait of William Morris, ca. 1887
    by Frederick Holleyer
    courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
    in the Public Domain (U.S.)
  • Slow Architecture is the difference between a "building" and "architecture."  
Maybe we don't need the term Slow Architecture after all!  Perhaps we can just remember what Architecture is supposed to be in the first place.

Note: Some of this discussion might sound a lot like Mr. William Morris and his crew..... but you don't have to be a medievalist or a Socialist to think that Democracy has not particularly benefited from the Fast Consumerism of late.

If you start out with something good, you can adapt it to your needs rather than selling it and buying something else.
Add a home office, adapt a nursery, plant a vegetable garden, move your master suite downstairs, build a barn. This is what people have always done and can do again.  

ally