Friday, February 11, 2005

Architects talking trash about my rusticated concrete!

The Nashville Scene has been my newspaper of choice for fifteen years. Christine Kreyling’s articles on urban design are one reason for that. She has a knack for helping her readers understand the significance of the design of lived space. Heck, I even cite her a couple of times in my 1997 Vanderbilt dissertation on community-based organizing, simply because I tend to agree that built space makes a difference in all aspects of neighbors’ lives, including the more political aspects.

However, other times when I read her work I am left with the distinct impression that her “caste and station” (nod to Charles Dickens) unduly influence her reportage and commentary. Her tone in this week’s issue of the Scene is a case in point. In an article called, “Tomorrow’s Landmarks” (click HERE to read it), Ms. Kreyling seems to have two purposes: 1) to characterize the debate over new builds in historic and conservation districts as sharp (her reportage); and 2) to claim subtly that Metro’s preservationists are obligated to encourage architecture that is “worthy of the architecture around them” (her commentary).

I believe that she achieved her first purpose. I was somewhat less than satisfied that she even attempted the second. I reserve the right to be wrong, but I get the impression she has a dog in the fight on which she is reporting; and that dog is a blue-blood best in show. It is the breed of high culture (vs. low culture).

She seems to take aim at various targets. Some of her shots are true. I lived in Historic Edgefield for two years, and I agree with her that in the context of Edgefield, the City View Lofts are “U-G-L-Y.” They look like architecture that would fit Hillsboro Village or Green Hills, but in East Nashville they look out-of-place. No argument there. In fact, I would also include the mini ranch-style houses that are converted into bungalows by CPR Solutions LLC, which then jacks up their prices because of the demand for bungalows. (Click HERE to read about it).

I do have a bone to pick with what I consider to be potshots at newly built (a.k.a., “in-fill”) houses that she associates with the snobbish label “replica-lite.” I have to admit that I am talking out of my own more modest station as an owner of one of these “replica-lite” homes built last year near Morgan Park. I confess that I live in what seems to be the illegitimate child of conjugal relations between late Transitional Victorian style and a bungalow. A retro retread.

Ms. Kreyling expressed the concern that “pseudo-old” houses like mine run the risk of giving old neighborhoods the “artificial aura” of a theme park. It is in the “rusticated concrete” and “cement fiberboard” (both of which I have) that new builds do not live up to the older architecture around them. (By the way, calling Hardiplank® “cement fiberboard” is about as romantic as calling flagstone “slabs of hardened inorganic and organic waste sediments.” I do not know the lineage of fiberboard, but just for the record, long before cement became gauche for contemporary architects, it was invented by the Ancient Egyptians and concrete was used by the Assyrians and Babylonians [Source]).

The issue of “living up to landmarks” is the point where sirens and flashing red lights go off for me. Irrespective of the number of imitators in a neighborhood, neighbors generally do not need architects and designers around to tell the difference between the historic landmarks and the houses that mimic older styles. For those of us who don’t have $500K or $600K to slap on the barrelhead for stately landmarks, consistent but not identical replicas come as a more modestly priced compromise. We may not be able to have the best, but we can have “the good enough.” They are good for the owners, good for the builders, and good for the “pioneers,” who still enjoy the elevated status of “the original.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that whatever sells most in the market is intrinsically good. But what satisfies the aesthetic tastes of architects is not necessarily intrinsically good, either.

Please understand me. Perhaps cement and fiberboard are not the best architectural materials for in-fill. Perhaps retro is not the most commendable style. But until the cadre of architects Ms. Kreyling interviewed gets beyond the lavish visions of architecture as high artistry, and until they address common people down below whose choices are subject to the marketplace, the rest of us are going to have to make due with what builders offer us.

In the best of all possible neighborhoods, architectural definitions of beauty ought not just involve the preciousness of building materials, but the inclusion of diverse groups of people into a built community where art is appreciated. Besides, if every house in the neighborhood is a landmark, then no house in the neighborhood is a landmark.

The question of inclusion of many cultures begs another point: artificiality is not the unique ken of low culture. For better or worse, we live in a world of “artificial auras.” Preservationists have their own more expensive “artificial auras”: there are homeowners of century-old Victorian façades who “patina” newly installed hardwood floors to make them suit the age of the house. Other preservationists wire entertainment rooms for surround sound to compliment their plasma televisions, which can be discretely hidden in antique armoires. Every time I drive through Franklin, I get the impression that they are trying to make it look more like a Mayberry-vintage town square than like the booming edge city and bedroom community it has actually become.

There are enough artificial auras to go around. There is enough artistry to go around. When architects start meeting people where they actually live and not where they think people should live, it will be a landmark; perhaps even tomorrow’s landmark.

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