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Trying To Get Ahead of the Past – Janis, Jimi and Jesus

April 15, 2014

The internet tells me someone named George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Religions are fraught with fulfilled prophesy: miraculous enactment of ancient predictions. The New Testament takes this even farther: Jesus ached to create a predicted future from an enumerated past.

I, on the other hand, would give anything to forget my growing up and am depressed when I see myself autonomically playing a tape of my parents’ mouthing some attitude or preconception (usually involving the imperative to mow your own lawn). Jesus had to ride an ass into Jerusalem, or he would compromise…: what? Who was keeping score? It must have been like the various political storekeepers certifying that the votes of lawmakers follow the prescribed path, whether left or right.

Who among us would like any length of our lives recorded, graded, replayed? The dramatically non viable relationships of the entire 1970′s were crystallized in my several long term romantic errors where hope and sex drowned out perspective. I careened around paying off academic debt, and creating significant bar tabs.

But in the end, my parents had detached from me years and years ago, and reattachmeant was simply not possible: so my decisions happened in the blank slate of a mind without my parents’ history as a set of guideposts.

In response to my uncharted flow from about 13 on, I (and my wife) conspired a path of extreme perspective for our kids. They have avoided the nightmares – at 22 and 24 they are ready to roll as adults – but at their age I was illegally driving, imitating a state of adulthood because I had no history to reference and repeat.

In fulfilling parental prophesy how have we warped our kids?

How many asses have they ridden because their Old Testament Parents noted that it was required? Neither has tattoos, a drug record, or even made a notable asinine act – they now have a clean platform to dirty up their adulthood upon. That is one destiny. And a better one than living a life in growing surety that you would die young.

Like Janis, or Jimi, or John Belushi, Jesus had a sense his extreme life was leading to an even more extreme end. In living a life over thin air, I never had a sense where I was going, but the survival imperative scared me to a platform that, in the end simulated my sons’: no drugs, no tattoos, no extreme asinine acts amid the thousands of calculations.

My focus on survival was because I had no net, by boys’ survival was helped by having one, and Jesus had the full-on net of expectations embedded in arcania, ritual and symbol.

I wish I knew what that was like… 


A Few Days – a serial sequence of thought

April 13, 2014

I am not comfy with declarations of “Holy”. I am the embodiment of the profane: beyond launching F-bombs at the drop of a sound bite, reveling in the trappings and measurables of achievement and wanting to eat bacon at every meal I am immersed in the here and now.

Even though I only have bacon one August morning a year in a remote Vermont location, away from the Fooderazzi, that is no “Holy” act.

Even though I work my 58.5 year-old tendons and cartilage to lactic acid overdose virtually 7 days a week, this is not “Holy”.

It is the opposite: in occasionally doing what I should do every hour of every day I live falling short. The sense of “shortness” is not from some canonical grade sheet or ethical purity screed: its just what I feel I know about me. So in the week between Palm Sunday and Easter I have qualms about these 7 days being “Holy Week”, or even the 2,000 year old guilt trip of the Passion Story where jealous dolts screw Jesus by springing the cool renegade.

Its easy to mock the Bible: I see glibsters club the bible’s baby seals of food/sex/gender absurdities with smug derision, because, you know, its all so completely lame. Their smirk turns into righteous outrage if you note that a combination of 4,000 and 2,000 year old stabs at history, faith and politics might need a little less 21st century quarterbacking – “you guys are killing women! wrecking human love! shielding sexual predators!” – and preventing me from ever eating bacon I might add…

But listening to The Passion read today the deadly dull truth is pretty unglam, unglib and definitively unholy: humans have not gotten very far from those lame descriptions of ancient jackassery:

Like Pilot, I push to get stuff done, do not fall into the shrill self-justifications of splinter groups with an agenda, and I am mostly unmoved by the plaintive cries for mercy in a cruel world – however I never try to screw anyone and I do work my ass off to make things better for things I believe in, - but those passive positive acts have nothing to do with staring at a crucifix or reading the Bible.

Its not about being “Holy” or even trying to be like Jesus – its the truth – the fact – that while I live in the here and now, my genetic hardwiring is based in what I feel. Inescapable, ignoble, unholy. I would be pretty pissed that some guy off the street gets the death penalty for,…what? But I would stay away from him when he was getting railroaded.

Just like the Disciples.

So in these few days of “Holy” week I do not feel some special bond with the sacred, I feel the grinding bum-out that we humans are as  obsessed with the immediacy of survival now as 100 generations ago, that the easy acts are those of cruelty, that generosity or altruism is either ignored or undermined by the suspicion that whatever seems to be too good to be true probably is.

I don’t feel Easter as a redemption: I feel that for one brief day the truth, the reality of Grace, unmerited love by a God whose kid we humans either killed or let die, can be accepted. Like weddings or births or graduations that transform years of  grinding effort or fearful waiting, Easter is going to happen, and we kinda know its because in the end, things are not dark, hope is not delusional, and whether we think we have a choice or not, we are unconditionally worth loving – despite our unholiness….



Welcome to Saved by Design!

April 12, 2014

New Stuff:

In Random Stuff:  Allusion-Imitation-Invention

In Not (As) Fat: Spring Roll

In Finding Home:  Renovation is Like Being 8 1/2 Months Pregnant by MidModReno

In The Rules:  Words

In Home Page: Home Page


April 12, 2014

Under Construction:


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Recently Completed!


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The outdoor chapel at Incarnation Camp in Ivoryton, CT

Click here to read about the project.


In New Haven Magazine: Cubed

In New Haven Magazine: Finding Design

In The New Haven Register:  Pearl Harbor Bridge in New Haven Extension of Greatest Generation’s Legacy

In Hartford Faith & Values:  An Elevator on Orchard Street

In The New Haven Register:  Are Neighbors More Neighborly when there is Greater Density?

In New Haven Magazine: Lawyers In Love

In Ink Magazine:  Architect Duo Dickinson: Celebrating 35 Years of Good Design for Everyone

In New Haven Magazine: A House of Homes

In The Source:  Duo Dickinson, Architect at Large

In River & Shore’s Coastal Homes:  On the Indian River

In The New Haven Register:  Aesthetically inconvenient Mudd Library faces death sentence

In Connecticut Magazine: Elements of Surprise

In The New Haven Register: Real Icons Aplenty in New Haven

In The Mercurial: Erosion Revelation

In Architecture Boston: Post-Modernism and Intelligent Design

In Design Bureau: Steve & Frank

Archive: Real Life Survival Guide



On Common Ground with Annette Ross:  She asked “Where is Architecture?”, I answered

On HGTV:  Mercedes Home Diaries       Password: mercedes



On Home Page, Binnie Klein & I debut our new radio show. Listen here!

On A Miniature World, Binnie Klein & I discuss springtime striving, mislaid spirituality & the folly of architectural terms. Listen here!



April 12, 2014

Language is an inspiration and a trap.

Like music, the words we use are as confused in their expression as we are in our motives for using them – written or spoken, they are received with every ounce of prejudice we have baked in our brains.

A Columbia Provost “air quotes” academic jargon to break the ice with a rapt audience of newly accepted MSW students (including my son). She was hoping to show her humanity by mocking the edu-speak these best and brightest had been bathed in for the last few hours. But most of these students do not get the joke and dead pan her schtick.

What you say or write is only one half of the equation – everything said is heard by other humans, who hear every word with a different filter of expectation. David Brooks writes a 600 word piece on the flip side of our obsession with happiness – and is pummeled for hidden agendas, hackery, previous columns and just general anger at him.

No matter how words are heard, having a common language does not prevent obscurity. Proprietary information is inherently off-putting – lawyers, doctors, academicians routinely rely on professionally correct/culturally obtuse words to give their conclusions cover against common sense.

Repeating the same words over and over makes their sound a fact independent of their content. This is how billionaires burn money during elections.

Mindless mangling the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer turns distilled meaning into rote sounds.

Any number of IRS, Federal Reserve, and economics professors have turned dollars and cents into philosophical arguendo fodder.

When deeply personal sensibilities are proffered in the poetics of prose, things can convey a darkside for those who are unmoved by their lyric intent. Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century words in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”  touch me like few other assembled phrases. But their deep humility and supplication was seen to be so demeaning for proper self-esteem maintenance in 1979 that the politically correct lexicon safely vaporized them for a new version of the same service.

But architects have no editing authority to protect our hubristic megalomania from full-on self-parodying absurdity. Patrik Schumacher is a front man for the world’s hottest starchitect: Zaha Hadad. Love it or hate it, their work has a POV. Simply put, Form Uber Alles: shape IS meaning: content and context are foils to abstracted shapes and the incidental spaces they define.

I find this aesthetic to be laughably self-serving and simple-minded – that’s just me – and I am clearly in archi-world’s minority view, a view largely unspoken as it might mean defending abstraction: which is as rigorous as an intellectual treatise defending your favorite color.

But my making light of the lite-ness of the Form Uber Alles doo-loop is just me. But when the designer rises to object to another “take” on architecture, in this case the Pritzker Prize being awarded to Shigeru Ban, a Japanses architect, who, like me, does a lot of humanitarian work, the words Schumacher uses deliciously unveil the narcissistic vapidity any architect can fall prey to: but when culture, context or client is seen as sad distortions of architecture, the tone deaf arrogance is priceless:

“Architects are in charge of the form of the built environment, not its content…We need to grasp this and run with this despite all the (ultimately conservative) moralizing political correctness that is trying to paralyse us with bad conscience and arrest our explorations if we cannot instantly demonstrate a manifest tangible benefit for the poor – as if the delivery of social justice is the architect’s competency.”

One baby step deeper, and when you read more of the Starchitect’s words, the ideas are laid independent of the sculpture his firm massages into consensual ooze with the camera:

“We need to understand how new forms can make a difference for the progress of world civilisation. I believe today this implies the intensification of communicative interaction with a heightened sense of being connected within a complex, variegated spatial order where all spaces resonate and communicate with each other via associative logics.”

Meaning: “my architecture is the progress of world civilization”…while “content” is not part of what architects should deal with…

Words always have meaning – intentional or by default: when intentionally obscuring, deadened by rote or fear, or heard with a frenzy that crib kills thoughtfulness, language is a blunt instrument for our own shallow intellectual laziness. Words do not die: they hang in space, they cannot be wished away, especially in cyberland.

We may try to write our own rulebook so we can never lose the games we play, but the infinite competing voices of the internet ultimately pre-empts propaganda from its swamping override of other attitudes: with a byproduct of the screaming hive allowing benign prose to elliptically become benighted by those who loath the writer, a la Brooks.

But when genuinely held values are offered up without apology as truths they have a simple bar to clear: are they valid in the world beyond the speaker’s?

Architecture has seen practitioners endlessly redefine what makes legitimate or innovative buildings: but inside baseball rationalizations do not hold water beyond buildings if they are blissfully contemptuous of what the rest of experience in the buildings the practitioner creates.

And So It Goes.

Oak Hill Road Construction Photos, March 2014

March 29, 2014

This is the third set of construction photos for the house on Oak Hill Road in Livingston, NY.

Since our last construction photos in November, we have completed the concrete structure, waterproofed all with a roof membrane, and installed the exterior doors to give us an enclosed space, comfortably heated with a temporary wood-burning stove. We have been installing the scribed walnut floor, a demanding component of the house with respect to materials and craftsmanship.

The materials to build the floor have come from twenty large black walnut trees that we cut down four years ago. We milled the planks on our sawmill to 1½ inches thick and left them with the edges that were the original shape of each tree, removing just the bark and sapwood. Milling the wood posed physical challenges: most of the planks were over twenty feet long and weighed over 100 pounds; the largest were 45 feet long and weighed in excess of 300 pounds. In addition, sawmills are designed to handle rectangular shapes and tend to rack, bind, and break blades when cutting planks with non-parallel edges. The sawing was also demanding mentally, as I needed to adjust my mindset from the customary goal of yielding the longest, straightest planks, to making cuts that produced the most dramatic and voluptuous boards. Even stickering (stacking the wood for drying) became more complicated because the boards didn’t align.

However the greatest challenges arrived after the boards had been milled, planed, and air-dried in our barns for four years. When it came time to make the final decisions about which planks went where and the exact shape of the path, I began by drawing the patterns on paper, then tried drawing them full-scale on the floor. I wanted them to look and feel natural and effortless, as though wind were blowing through the house down to the river. The shape of the boards could be altered with a simple saw cut to fit the path that I had drawn, but the more I tried to control the design, the more contrived and unnatural it felt, and the quality of each board would diminish the more it was altered. It became clear that the elegant shapes of the original walnut trees needed to guide the design of the path. My architectural preconceptions were only hindering the effort. The moment that I stopped trying to control the shape of the path and allowed the wood to have a voice, the solution became evident. It has been a painstaking process to slowly and deliberately weave the individual boards with each other in a pattern that explodes from the doorway to the windows, reaching out to the river and mountains beyond. We are now well underway. The transition from design to actual fabrication of this floor has been facilitated by the skill and enthusiasm that a dedicated group of fine craftsmen have brought to the project.

After all the floorboards are fitted to one another they will each be crowned gently on their surfaces to provide a tactile experience as you walk across them. They will then be scraped and finished with linseed oil and beeswax.

On the exterior of the house we are installing the copper siding. It looks like a big shiny new penny now, but will turn a lovely chestnut brown in a few months and then gradually become a soft greenish grey color with age. Throughout the course of designing this house we have tried to see simple choices differently. It is very common in the northeastern part of the country to build wooden buildings that are 1 or 2 stories above the ground with wood siding painted white – the classic New England farmhouse. This approach requires perpetual painting and wood replacement as components disintegrate. Over the lifetime of a wood building, its maintenance costs far more than the initial construction. We have made an effort to understand the true cost – for both money and energy consumption – of traditional wood siding, with its associated maintenance, and decided to clad the entire building in 20-ounce cold rolled copper, which is slightly more costly than wood initially, but maintenance free for the lifetime of the building. We also like how the copper looks and how it will change over time.

We are on schedule to complete the house by October 1.

The next set of construction photos will be posted in April during the placement of the giant granite monoliths. Until then, enjoy the spring!


Home Page Debut

March 29, 2014

Our first show! Listen here.HomePage


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