• Cultural dimensions as well as the technical dimensions of sustainability

    by  • January 26, 2012 • Uncategorized • 0 Comments

    Welcome, reader. This is the second in a series of bi-weekly musings about the state of the heritage conservation field in Canada and internationally.

    I closed the first editorial by mentioning the relationship between ‘carpenter, architect, and planner’ as one-way of thinking about type 1, 2 and 3 personalities (feel free to substitute ‘gardener, landscape architect, and regional planner’ if you wish). If we are going to populate the world with type 3 personalities, which we probably need to do to create sustainable life on this planet, then I would say the best chance of doing this is by looking for input from carpenters. There is a moderate chance of doing it with input from architects, and a distant chance with input from planners. And yet conventional wisdom has it the other way around. If there was ever a growth industry, it is the emergence of sustainability experts, particularly in the planning and design fields. What large engineering firm is not busy promoting its environmental and sustainability expertise? As I said in a recent response to an APTI survey on sustainability training in higher education:

    Willowbank is interested in the cultural dimensions as well as the technical dimensions of sustainability. We see a necessity to embed sustainable practice into local building traditions. A community that is dependent on highly-paid sustainability ‘experts’ is probably not a sustainable community.

    Vernacular architecture is traditionally understood as architecture without architects, and it has also tended to be architecture without planners. I was talking about vernacular architecture last week with Brian Mackay-Lyons, and he pointed out that when resources are scarce, all you can afford are things that work well. And he is right. Careful use of resources requires the adaptation of building materials and technologies to local landscape and climate. But it is also adaptation to local community practice. Sustainability turns out to be as much a question of the public realm as the private realm – shared use of resources, barter as a method of exchange, public spaces that accommodate private activities, synergies that allow overlapping uses.

    Are these not planning issues? Is this not the discussion of a utopian community, and who better to define utopia than a contemporary planner, or architect? No. Professional planners and designers over the last fifty years have managed to bring us the most inefficient communities in human history, and they are not likely to take us back out. The whole casting of sustainable communities or individual sustainable buildings as utopian concepts is central to the problem. Utopian visions are not ecological and never will be. Organic development is the only viable option over the long term, given that we inhabit a world that is already a series of highly-developed cultural landscapes. Unless we can read the complexity of those landscapes into the contemporary design and planning exercise, we will be running roughshod over the artifacts and rituals that define sustainability.

    There are exceptions. Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was a planner who understood the organic rather than utopian approach. But then he was a botanist first. He understood the true test of good planning as the advancement of social justice. And social justice turns out to be a better barometer of sustainability than any isolated technical measure. Erik Hanson, Peterborough’s heritage planner, came to teach at Willowbank and his first sentence to the students was exactly that – heritage planning is ultimately about social justice. The students responded immediately – this was someone whose teaching would fit within their larger ecological interests. They later spent a day with developer Margie Zeidler in Toronto, where she expressed a similar sentiment that struck them equally forcibly – her interest in the relationship between urban development and social engagement. And her projects reflect that. One of the keys to this kind of approach is that local knowledge and sweat equity are parts of the equation, as they always have been in the vernacular tradition.

    Patrick Geddes and his wife Anna Morton are described this way in a recent exhibit organized by the Scottish Branch of the Royal Town Planning Institute (which Geddes co-founded in 1914):

    Raising their family on a tenement stair of the Old Town of Edinburgh, they brought light, air, gardens and music to a forgotten section of the city and inspired its regeneration. Their interest in history, culture and identity, the wholeness of the universe, ecological education and careful practical action, advanced the arts and science of town planning and sociology worldwide. Two of Patrick’s notable quotes are “By leaves we live” and “A city is not a place in space but a drama in time”

    When living in India, as a child and later as an adult, I discovered that Patrick Geddes, almost a century earlier, had been responsible for small interventions in a number of cities there that still formed part of immensely livable places – complex, layered, natural places in the fabric of the city. They responded to the vernacular urban traditions already in place.

    The most sustainable design intervention or building is the one that makes everything around it more sustainable. How often is that true of LEED certified buildings? We’ll never know because no one asks. From the visual evidence, one can see that many of these interventions are self-satisfied and self-centred, and speaking a language that is not the neighbourhood dialect.

    The reading of the cultural landscape requires being inside the cultural imagination. The closer you are to a community, the more likely you are to understand the cultural landscape. A physical landscape can be observed, whereas a cultural landscape has to be experienced.

    So who is closest to the experience of place? Here is a simple test. Planning in North America, as a comprehensive government activity, first came into its own in the early twentieth century. Detailed maps were produced to support planning acts and zoning bylaws. There was agreement that the colour yellow would be used to represent residential areas, red would be used for commercial, and blue would be used for institutional. Why was this? For several centuries, the same colours had been used on the paper and linen drawings produced by builders and architects to indicate materials. Yellow represented wood, red represented brick, and blue represented stone. The translation into zoning was a reflection of local building practices, with many communities having started with wooden building for residences, brick for commercial blocks, and stone for the city halls, libraries, churches and other institutional markers. Carpenters were perfectly aware that they could produce wood buildings pretty much on their own, would need the assistance of a brick-layer for the commercial buildings, and would have to rely on the pretty sophisticated shaping and setting skills of the stone mason for the most important buildings. It is not just the combination of skill sets – each of these technologies represents an exponential increase in overall building mass and with it a commitment of human energy that a builder well understands.

    Who was making these decisions about what type and style of building to erect, both for individuals and communities? It was the local carpenter. The community turned to the carpenter / master builder for assistance. When the carpenter needed assistance, he or she turned to the masons. And when both the carpenter and the mason wanted fresh design ideas, they would purchase a book such as “The American Builder’s Companion” by Asher Benjamin, or “The Carpenter’s Assistant: Containing a Succinct Account of Egyptian, Grecian and Roman Architecture”, by William Brown. These authors were architects. The architect comes into the picture as the carpenter’s assistant – a truth that is too often forgotten these days. And many of the best architects were carpenters or masons to begin with – Andrea Palladio, the mason, being one of the best examples.

    The planner, in turn, is the assistant to the architect and the carpenter, helping design the context for their interventions. If the planner has forgotten what yellow and red and blue represent – the tangible reality of building, the symbol of something that is both an artifact and a ritual, a place and a cultural practice – then they have begun to drift into gradual irrelevance. And that is true of most planning maps these days – the colours have become arbitrary, with no meaning other than the choice of powder from the inkjet printer. The saving grace is that these maps – particularly zoning maps – are most intimately connected to utopian ideas of planning, and as we shift to a more organic approach, zoning as a planning tool becomes less relevant.

    To conclude these observations, suffice it to say that type 1, 2, and 3 personalities cannot be linked directly to the carpenter, the architect, or the planner. But we need to shift to sustainable practice, and that means reconnecting to a more tangible relationship to place and to community. Carpenters have the advantage of being the closest to this reality. For them the differences between yellow, red and blue are real. For architects, the colours are at least sometimes part of the language they speak. Good architects like Brian Mackay-Lyons still draw their design from the nature of the materials, whereas others have long ago forgotten that stone is heavier than wood, or that any material takes blood, sweat and tears to move into place. I was recently involved in a Snohetta project where the materials were so abstracted in their use that there was no longer any rootedness in reality. For many planners, the reality of yellow, red and blue are but a dim memory, a forgotten link to what it really means to shape a place for oneself and for one’s community in the landscape.

    Type 1 personalities were protesting 20th Century utopianism by fighting for remnants of a more organic past. Type 2 personalities abandoned the fight and decided to shape their own utopian plan for integrating the past into the present. Type 3 personalities accept the fading of the utopian dream, and are committed to exploring the complex and more ecological world emerging from its ashes. Utopias are sustained by the abstract and elitist formulations of the university and the professional schools; the organic model respects the carpenter’s combination of empirical knowledge and philosophical musing. The community wants the latter, if given the choice.

    Julian Smith

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