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#effortingarchitecture

August 3, 2019


It is a different time.

Humans are all doing the same things: careers, families, eating, sleeping: but in less than a generation nothing is being done in the First World as it was done in the last century.

Our cars are bizarrely animistic, intelligent and getting smarter. Our food is ever more engineered, more efficiently transported – Or: in reaction, it is as artisanal as a painting. Our clothes, our objects are bought untouched, unseen but for the screen. We sleep, but we numb to those screens, all the time, not being dormant for the night hours.

Some make buildings.

And those who are old enough see an updated, but yet still handhewn art of construction, being figured out with the same surreal indirectness as our cars, our clothing, as or sleep, are simply going along to get along.

The rethinking is down by the machines, to the point that the phrase “xeroxing” can come to mean building without human hands.

We, everyone, knows something is up. Our new best friends, our phones, told us so. Many used telephones to make phone calls a decade ago. But as the economy crashed into a spasm that helped create the oddest presidency and president in history, those phones lost buttons and have images projecting out of them that are infinite in variety, usefulness, and intuitive compatability with our fingers and eyes and minds – if we are young enough.

This new age is in the sheep’s clothing of familiar sights, sounds, tastes, even touches. But the nature of our time is recorded by those phones i to 8 and 12 hour periods in a day when we are not eating, sleeping, loving, showering – we are on those screens, as I am now.

We are tapping on the garments of a naked emperor.

This is not an aesthetic debate, of style or perspective, but this “event”, unconspired, continuously evolving, somehow fully inscrutable, is vectoring to a place where many, if not most, of the givens of just 20 years ago will change humans from using tools, to become the tools of our tools.

We are redefining everything without having a new definition except we know that the definitions we had are simply not on our phones.

In architecture this is a wrending dislocation between generations, educations and, I think, how humans conceive and achieve beauty.

It is neither “bad or “good”, “traditional” or “modern” – we are in the beginnings of changing the way we make, and define everything. I am an architect who writes. So I will write about architecture, and architects in this Section of a blog foisted upon me by a then paper newspaper, that may well be paperless in a year or two, than, maybe disappear, or reappear, or..

this is new, forgive me.

The Miracle of Death

July 22, 2019

About 3 years ago, I had realized that a fine 100 year old sugar maple in front of our house had “the blight” that afflicted perhaps 50% of maple trees around us.

It was a sad recognition that beauty simply happens and just as incoherently, ends.

My “tree man” was of classic deep intelligence and New England understatement. “You know what this is?”. He said as we walked down to see the Swamp Maples that needed their suckers trimmed.

“Well, no, – it’s not a beech..”

“It’s an elm.”

“No way!” I gasped. Then I knew it: the tree had simply exploded in growth over the last 30 years after a 200 year old white oak came down, killed by my then neighbor’s new septic field. That field provided water, and I assume nutrition, and thus the nascent elm had tripled in size to a height of 50 feet and a girth of perhaps 30 inches at its base.

But more, it’s insane growth meant that the old farmer’s retaining wall was simply busted apart.

And, like all those elms I had dealt with before, it’s surface roots hard cast a carefully planted, replanted and planted again garden to its north, killing everything its roots encountered as the soil became organic concrete.

“How?” I said, having lived in one “City of the Elms”, Buffalo, and now another the “Elm City” New Haven and in between the Cornell campus that, like so many 19th century “City Beautiful” places had planted elms because their shape is gracious and the trees grow with extreme vigor.

But bugs in logs from Europe arrived after World War 2 and the American Elm, all American Elms, had a death sentence imposed upon them.

My tree man said simply – “I have seen it before, if a sapling is far enough away from others, the bugs cannot travel far enough to kill it.”

Great pride (for no reason) welled up within me. We may be disposing of the gentile sugar maple now in its death throws, but we had a fully healthy elm. An Elm!

Then a year later, I repaired my driveway from heavy rain yesterday. Again.

Brown leaves on the gravel, many, many more than the last repair…

I looked up and saw the branch at the top of the peak. Naked limbs.

Another death sentence.

Another dead tree growing.

Damn.

I had been given the gift of understanding a miraculous life that defied knowledge . I had understood what I had observed for 30 years, and now, reality met its percentages.

We live on a coastal glacial moraine salt marsh, on the hillside that faces north. No sun. Rocks, so densely packed by glaciers that nothing grows without luck or extreme preparation. Or vicious invasiveness. But sometimes things find love in hostility. The same salty water that killed over 100 grasses I had planted when the town cleaned out the culvert that allowed a free-er flowing tide seemed to delight the 6 Wild Oats I had also planted to the point where they now own the north edge of our dry land.

In a place where more dies or never lives than grows, these opportunists enjoy the limited sun, bad soil, salt poisoning. Until they don’t. I hope it is until the next set of glaciers meander across this land in 60,000 years.

The bugs that killed millions of beauties over the last 50 years of my life had not found our one beauty, that replaced another beauty. That beauty was in rampant health and vigor. Until now.

I am almost 64, I am desperately pedaling in my recumbent bike as I type this, and I hope words and Level 25 will extend my life. I had a genetically flawed blood vessel in my head fulfill its flaw, it’s beetles found my bark, and I lost balance, but nothing else, and it returned 5 days after $40,000 of monitoring.

Death is as normal as any relationship, but exquisitely painful. Especially when it comes to those you know well. My sibling lived a life in the toxic threat of extreme judgement over not much. He hated school, liked to smoke, eat the worst kind of food. His parents, my parents, simply let him know that he had failed their expectations. He did a variety of drugs washed down with large portions of alcohol, but was fully functional, like the elm, and the sugar maple and the grasses, until he wasn’t. He found a place changing gender, being devoted to a job others found tedious, and was, finally, after 2 failed marriages, seemingly, OK.

But I would not know. She never returned any call or letter from me in his last 15 years, and the beetles of her childhood killed her last year.

I am healthy, though somewhat fat. I have allergies that continually remind me of my frailty, but so far, my beetles have not found me.

The cycle of beauty and death is fully mysterious. The “why’s” of survival, flourishing, death and absence are without logic, or beyond observation, let alone understanding.

We are all elms, and sugar maples and my brother-become-sister. We have a shelf life. We all turn to room temperature. But in the moment of beauty, when survival becomes miracle, we have that moment.

HOME as Frozen Music

July 11, 2019

LISTEN PODCAST! http://archives.wpkn.org/bookmarks/listen/267068/home-page-duo-dickinson

The philosopher Goethe said “Architecture is frozen music.” And architecture is everywhere around us. We are surrounded by music. But we are all, all of us, harbored by our homes: it does not matter what type or style or size, every human has a place they call home.

And every human has a sense of the music they like. All animals breath, eat, sleep, and engage in bathroom duty, but only humans have a pride of home and music that they are part of. Every day.

Today, Home Page Radio makes the connection between Home and Music.

A remarkable hour that mixes music composed, made and recorded for the program in a home, music made almost 100 years ago based on The Golden Mean, music made in full Pop Shallowness describing what an architect is and several Anthems of Architectural Allusion.

Three long time radio humans, and WPKN inhabitants, and home owner-occupiers: Istvan B’Racz, Rod Richardson, and yes, Duo Dickinson apply another uniquely human reality, memory, to their lives living at home. Creating, fixing, inhabiting. Being At Home. With Music.

It’s an hour of Home as Frozen Music at HOME PAGE Radio.

Keeping Appearances

July 4, 2019

For 9 years I faithfully attended The Hudson River Country Day School, in Irvington, New York. It’s only memory in the world that I could find other than my own was this random picture I found on the internet of “office space in Irvington”. It was a converted “Country Home”..

It was a tiny private day school in Westchester Suburbia that was made after the Baby Boomers flooded what was previously the land of “Country Homes” by two spinster sisters from Alabama – Bernie and Ellen Warnock. They always had a couple of black employees, who these 70+ year olds called “Nigruhs”, and who cooked lunch and kept up the building.

My own family was comprised of the minimum Boomer brood – 3 children. My father, a lawyer, had had a fantastic decade in the 1930’s after law school, finding a beauty to wed and then share at jazz clubs, golf courses, restaurants and parties. And playing polo for the Army Artillery Reserve, until his 8 year military commitment was done in 1940. Law was a crisp 8 hours a weekday with other Ivy white males who had secretaries – with all of August completely off. No faxes, cell phones, IPO’s, or brutal litigation.

Then World War 2 happened.

Ripped from this fully funded place of defined (and met) expectations, my father spent the next decade coping – first war in the Navy on aircraft carriers (sunk after he left them) as an intelligence officer. Upon return he immediately impregnated my mother, now an “older” 31, and lost his partnership track at his Wall Street law firm after a couple of years. Then a position at another firm that “did not work out”. Then, at last, around 1950 he found a partnership at a tiny boutique firm with terrific clients.

4 pregnancies and 3 surviving children later, the idea of living in Manhattan or renting was, unsurprisingly, not tenable for someone in his early 40’s. With whatever inheritance was there from his father, a construction supervisor with a home in Brooklyn, who died the year I was born in 1955, and a private mortgage from a friend, my parents bought a very nice, very unloved “mini-estate” in Dobbs Ferry, a town my father often referred to as “second rate”.

This landing happened after a succession of disconnections. He simply ended his full devotion to Jazz, then golf, New York City living – and my father retreated to what remained of his blissful ’20’s – the Law, his marriage and booze.

He always had those three pillars, but I am thinking alcohol had as much to do with his career variations as the violence of the World War. All those Grey Flannel Men smoked continuously and drank resolutely, but when I knew him, my father was stone sober at work, then fully drunk an hour after getting off the train, or coming to dinner on the weekends or August. Every Day.

I know him well enough that I know that he saw his unmet capacity and his falling short from those he went to school with and worked around. They had all moved to “First Class” towns after the war, and he lost touch with them. My father was his family’s first graduate from high school, ever. He was a first generation American from immigrant parents, 2nd in his class at Boys High in Brooklyn, an incredible success. Except to him.

That pain inveighed a 20 year rage against those who he came home to.

His prescribed criteria for parenting was first and foremost about grades, and “the word” was that private schools were the only answer to a “second rate” town’s public school system, despite his own going to one. In searching, my parents found a school of perhaps 50 children. Kindergarten plus 2 grades to a room until 8th grade. Somehow, after perhaps 5 years that saw my sister graduate, go to a local sleep away Episcopal girl’s high school, (where she was fully miserable), he became the school’s Board President.

I have completely forgotten what that meant to our home life, but I assume Board Meetings, ledger sheets, personnel issues happened, even if half of the full time staff were the Warnock sisters.

But this rigorous little school was a perfect micro focus for me, the youngest of three children. We were all judged in the school’s grading system. For my older brother that meant that his life was defined by a preponderance of “S”‘s for “Satisfactory”, not the “+” grade for “Best” . To my father this was a disaster, revealing deep, permanent inadequacies in his son, who seldom, if ever got the dreaded “F” for ‘Fair” and the never received (I think) “-” for failure of a class or behavior.

Seeing this, I never received anything but a “+” after first grade (where my teacher, Miss. Fieter, from, yes, Germany, with thick accept, said that I was mostly a “Satisfactory ” or “Fair” student, too). Miss Fieter, ancient as well as German, also called me, and forced me to spell, “George” as it is my given name, though never used, before or since. It was Duo and “+”‘s from then on. I was “Husky”, in clip-on ties, flannel pants and the school jacket (a late attempt to project beyond “Second Rate”.

We students all used the “back stairs” – a tiny angled tread nightmare of code violations, while the Warnock sisters lived in the “formal” part of the home, with a grand stair, while the classes were in the other former bedrooms, and the other living and dining rooms became our dining and assembly spaces. We were herded into “Miss Ellen’s” bedroom to watch astronaut launches and inauguration speeches. There were “Defense Drills” where we all we shuttled to the basement “Bomb Shelter” with canned crackers. “Miss Bernie” never taught, but visited classes, “Miss Ellen” often scotch-taped her lower eyelid down as it was a leaker.

After 3rd grade, every paper we wrote was transcribed via fountain pen, in Peacock Blue Ink, and set into books bound with satin ribbon, where we painted the covers using stencils of our course name initial in Tempura water color paint. It was co-ed, mostly for the kids who could not get in or, like us, pay for, Hackley or Rye Country Day, so there were kids with blue collar parents.

After I graduated, an architect parent created a Modern Box addition that I pray made access safe, and after a few years, and, I assume, the death of “Miss Bernie” and “Miss Ellen”, the school, unsurprisingly, closed. During those last years of the school, I had been shipped to a day school in the suburbs of Buffalo and camped, with my brother, in another unloved home in downtown Buffalo itself. I still am not clear why.

Before I left for Buffalo, life was a terrorized pressure cooker of eggshell expectations – where at any provocation the scotch in my father could “erupt” (as I described when I was 4). My brother was relegated to the local high school, then a state teachers college, then dropping out, and my even older sister simply walked away from her second private high school, a month before graduation.

I saw the cause and effect. I won the “Bernie Warnock Award” twice for the best student in that tiny school. It meant less as it was usually given to a graduating 8th grader, but there was no 8th grade in my 7th year, so I won it twice.

In my fear avoidance of drunken wrath, I easily became the class clown, who almost never went to another kid’s home or party, and never said a word about a family life that I assumed to be normal, or at least our life – no one else’s. It was a tiny class, everyone knew everyone, sort of. Each class of two grades sat at one table for lunch and served ourselves from large tureens of heated canned stews, “Chop Suey” and rice or spaghetti sauce and spaghetti – that suck remarkably well to the ceiling when thrown correctly.

But there was a moment.

In eighth grade, when I was 13, our teacher (each two classes had one for everything but Art and Music) was a forty-ish woman, who had children of her own. She had light brown hair and glasses, wore lipstick, and laughed at my jokes. I liked her, and was noticing that girls were more interesting in the last year or so, too.

She asked me, casually, in class during “study time”, “Can I see you in the library?”

I was a bit scared. Had I done something?

The wee “Library” was a tiny room, perhaps a nursery in the original house, surrounded by painted bookcases. I go in, her behind me, a bit scared. She closes the door and walks to me, taller than I by a couple of inches, and looks me directly in the eye, gets a bit close, and says “Is everything all right?”

How could she know?

I looked back into her eyes, which were deeply fixed on mine, and said, with as much confidence as possible, “Sure.”

“Are you sure?” She was close to me.

“Yes.”

She may have put her hand on my shoulder, but I said “I am fine.”

“OK”

We leave.

Had my father been drunk at some school board/staff event? Had I been over the top in making jokes? Did she like me?

After that moment, confusion was replaced by performance as it was every day for my first 15 years, until another woman, my best friend in high school, said those same things to me later in Buffalo. But I could respond to her differently.

I forget my teacher’s name, or really anything other than all those “+”‘s on all those report cards. They were my life in those years. I lived through them and talked to no one about what was behind them. I am pretty sure I never had a sick day away from school in those 9 years

For the 1960’s that little school offered a compartmentalized world that was heaven in a life otherwise lived in fear. It was a split decade: I could perform, joke, and ultimately achieve at school, but the daily re-entry into the home world meant caution, restraint, sometimes cruelty.

Until, somehow, those two worlds almost connected

Walkable HOME

June 24, 2019

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PODCAST https://soundcloud.com/wpkn895/home-page-radio-walkable-home

In the last few years, we have all heard the word “walkable” used to market homes in cities and towns. It has become a marketing buzzword, used to sell in-town living.

But “walkable” used to be the norm in cities and towns. Cars changed that. The Connecticut Turnpike, I-95, opened in 1958, and within a decade its final extension through to Rhode Island and the building of I-91 completely changed Connecticut’s cities. The huge ribbons of concrete and steel cut through these towns, often wrecking neighborhoods. These roads acted as walls, cutting off neighborhoods and ending any connection to the water that created the cities in the first place. This highway invasion changed every city in America, and the Baby Boomers extended the Greatest Generation’s love of suburbia and car-based living in Connecticut by abandoning downtown living.

Connecticut’s cities were becoming those places that were not worth arriving at. But in the last decade, there is a new beginning of a dramatic change in how cities are used. Connecticut’s cities and real estate developers are realizing that the appeal of living in a place that is truly “walkable” has real value – to both retiring Baby Boomers who do not want to mow lawns, and their offspring, the Millenials do not want to even own a car, let alone a home.

What is the future of living, at HOME, in downtown America? Three thought leaders will be online for this hour:

Robert Orr is an architect and a renowned town-planner with more than forty years national and international experience. With projects at Seaside, and the New Hartford Library, Camp Anne and commercial, institutional and community projects, as well as custom residential homes, Orr’s role as urban designer has a depth of perspective few others can offer. Robert Orr has been honored with many design awards and featured in hundreds of publications at home and abroad.

John Massengale has won awards for architecture, urbanism, architectural history, and historic preservation, from organizations and publications ranging from Progressive Architecture and Metropolitan Home, to the National Book Award Foundation (with the first architectural history book to win a National Book Award), to several chapters of the American Institute of Architects, and the Walton Family Foundation. He has served on the Boards of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the Institute for Classical Art & Architecture (ICAA), and Federated Conservationists of Westchester County (FCWC), and was the founding Chair of both CNU NYC and CNU New York (the state chapter). Massengale has taught at the ICAA, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Miami and is a licensed architect in New York State.

Steve Mouzon opened his own architecture firm in 1991 and produces a number of town-building tools and services. Mouzon Design’s Premium Tools Collection is a subscription service to robust new place-making tools that heretofore were unaffordable when commissioned by a single development. A Living Tradition is a framework for a new type of pattern book that is principle-based instead of taste-based, and therefore contributes to the creation of new living traditions. Steve is also a principal of the New Urban Guild in Miami. The New Urban Guild is a group of architects, designers, and other New Urbanists dedicated to the study and the design of true traditional buildings and places native to and inspired by the regions in which they are built.

vulnerability

June 24, 2019

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I remember the World’s Fair of 1964 in New York. A birthday party of a friend went there. (No, my parents, nor our family, did not.) Essentially the instant, huge and temporary event was in line with a century old series, that now seems to be forever killed by the instant, forever, and free Internet that makes for a World’s Fair 24/7/365.

There once was, in that World’s Fair,  an infinite, white, male, American future.

Singing Disney Robots unendingly crooned “It’s A Small World After All” as we road in little train cars through a darkened hall. Next year’s Car of the Future was on display. There was Oriental food. A huge aluminum globe suspended over us. Buildings that were in full gymnastic expression of human power, hope and confidence that this world was Our World, after all.

But things have changed in 55 years.

Now, there is a full on fear of being proved completely wrong in any positive sense of hope. There is a cynic’s ascendancy to the point that what we trust is what we cannot trust.

Everyone everywhere has at least one clay foot.

So when a perfect day, yesterday, here in New England, breaks through the Climate Change reminder that we are, all, doomed, it is an anomaly. The baseline is no longer “Free the World For Democracy” But “We Are All Gonna Die.”

The repeated, intense, warnings. Or predictions. Or anger. Or dark, even hopeless, humor. Louder. More frequent. More extreme.

We are feeling more vulnerable.

The world will end in a dozen years (unless we change how we, and everyone else, lives.)

Donald Trump will be re-elected.

Donald Trump will not be elected.

The stock market will lose 2/3 of its value.

That bump on my arm may be cancer.

A lot of knowledge proves to be more dangerous than a little knowledge. We accrue and disseminate and scream more knowledge every second. And it seems to offer an abiding fear that in not knowing it means that what control we thought we had was Fake News.

Humans want to know. We want to know that the Apocolypse will happen on a date specific. We know that vaccines cause ADHD. We know that unless we allow or prevent abortion, guns, death penalty, student debt, gay marriage, carbon we will end all hope of a civilization we want to belong in.

And this fire has been lightly roasting humans for, well, as long as a layman can read what humans wrote.

But love him, or hate him, Donald Trump has accelerated out cultural BBQ with a jet of ethanol that takes ancient hopes and fears and uses the Internet’s steroidal nourishment to launch every terror into deafening distraction.

Because we are, truly and forever, vulnerable.

The sentience that allows you to read this is completely mysterious in its fragility, complexity, and miraculous capacity. In this moment of reality we all see, here, now, many stop seeing. Many die. We are vulnerable.

Ultimately, we lapse into a place where all of the distraction cannot distract us from a simple reality: we are vulnerable.

No armour of truth, weapon of insight, power of wealth, badge of love, symphony of surety overcomes the simple reality that every human has an “Off” switch.

We did not write the rules. We do not even know them, who wrote them, or pretty much anything but the miracle of this moment and it’s inevitable end. That is clearly not enough.

Sons

June 15, 2019

The first Father’s Day happened in 1910 – 6 months after my father was born.

Like all male humans my father was a son. But his mother died 6 months after that first Father’s Day, in the secret attempt not to continue to bear another child with my grandfather. My Dad never had the father the culture celebrates today.

He was sent to live with two unmarried sisters of his father in Canada until he was 6. That absence shaped him, so deeply that I am pretty sure he never dealt with it. Except to drink, a lot, for the last 60 years of his life.

In turn, he was never the celebrated Father of his children. He made money that fully housed, schooled and clothed his entire family to the high standards that the Mid-Century required. But, in the end, he simply had no facility at loving his children. He did for us, but it was a burden, not his joy.

Joy was jazz, dancing, the law, his wife, golf – but by the time I became aware that he was a human, distinct from “Daddin”, he had lost all of those joys. His first two offspring somehow were not what he expected. They were not Ivy League Material, despite the private schools. They were not intellectual. They grew scared of him, as by the time they were beyond innocence he was drinking very effectively every night.

As those first children left the brutality of a tough home, I simply kept my head down. I had little else to do. Piano lessons after six months simply stopped, summer camp after two blissful July’s in the mid 1960’s simply ended. No explanation. Sports, or activities beyond school were just not part of my early life. Yard work was done, we went to see the Harlem Globetrotters and the circus once a year. My birthday was a $20 bill. I was along for his coping.

Once I was 300 miles away, sent to high school, football, acting, writing, exploded. But my father lived alone for half his time, the other half with my visiting mother. He spent two weeks in August in the summers, visiting my brother and I in Buffalo those high school years. Then nothing, save paying my way, until he didn’t. One college visit (even though I went to his beloved alma mater), and then, well, grace.

I was without money, had to draw the thesis I had gotten a degree with, but I had not executed the “presentation drawings” the degree required, and I was honor bound to fulfill that promise. That meant a six week, full time exercise. My parents took me in. I could have gone to the house in Buffalo, and honestly I do not know why I did not. Except that they were my parents, there, in the home I grew up in.

After a decade away, he still was fully drunk by 7:30PM, having started at 6:30, 7 minutes after his Hudson Harlem Line train pulled into the Dobbs Ferry Station. But he was not mean, even angry, mostly. He was almost 70. He would be dead in 10 years.

My father’s college end was fully unfettered, like me, as his father also paid for his education, gave him work where he worked at the Carlin Construction Company, to the point that when my father declared that he would no longer be working there, as he had been admitted into law school, my grandfather “kicked him out of the house,”

That must have been in my father’s mind, when he silently accepted my presence in the fall of 1978.

My grandfather died the year I was born. The mysteries of how a thrice married, non-drinking man, with two other children by his second wife thought of my father are completely unknown.

So the sadness of parental confusion was great with me, until my wife and I dared to have children of our own, two sons. Their vulnerability, absolute dependence, full fragility was completely terrifying. What my father and grandfather saw as a thing to be dealt with and paid for, on his terms, his children, was the largest vulnerability I could imagine.

If I lost touch, erred, simply passively accepted life around them, my wife and I would be wholly culpable, fully guilty, with no extenuating make-up calls.

So we over-parented.

In perfect Boomer Helicoptering we determined every blessed bit of two young boys’ lives. I am guessing that our too much was, net-net, better than the alternative. But endless practices, auditions, events, performances, conferences, reading out loud every night (including every Harry Potter book as they came out) meant that we, somehow, prevented history from repeating itself. Or at least, my wife and I did no harm.

Both sons returned to see us Father’s Day, as they do Mother’s Day. I cannot see the merit of celebrating what should be automatically part of every day, like breathing, eating, sleeping. National Sleep Day does not do it for me. But they come, and it is a good thing.

But as my father was a mystery to me, and his to him, I pray to God, and I write these things, so that I am no mystery to them. Families live in full appreciation of each others’ flaws, and in full hope of their virtues.

Guessing at what a Father is is still coping. Instead, for almost 30 years, I have lived through children becoming men. I do not think we got in the way.