Saturday, February 12, 2005

"How I learned to like my cement fiberboard" or "I didn't want to be an advocate for Hardiplank®, but an urban design critic left me no choice."

I wish I could let go of the whole issue of “replica-lite,” but I have got a couple of other replies to make first in order to dislodge it effectively from my craw.

I have to hand it to Christine Kreyling. She concedes that defining what counts as “good” in architecture is not easy. However, that also lets architects off the hook; they can proclaim many things as “not good” about contemporary architecture without ever having to say what exactly is good. Where’s the vision in that?

And what if contemporary style is nothing more than mechanical replication? If so, I confess that one thing I consider "good" about affordable contemporary architecture is that while it mimics older styles, it also innovates along more practical lines. Hardiplank® siding is a case in point. It looks like wood while minimizing the ecological damage caused by rising demands to harvest forests for wood, because it is a composite. Furthermore, because it is a composite, cement fiberboard protects houses from fire and other threats better than wood (here’s a report to that effect from the company’s website).

These pragmatic goals may not be cardinal virtues in the pantheon of the highest architectural goods, but perhaps they should be considered part of the virtues of the art, if there are such things (I cannot tell whether there are because defining what is "good" in architecture is not easy). Otherwise, architects run the risk of becoming irrelevant to those of us who cannot afford to side our own landmarks with more vulnerable and more precious materials.

I am no architect, but I live in architecture. So, let me suggest to urban design critics that pragmatic concerns are also merits worth their consideration. Contemplate what you will, but please come back down and talk to us neighbors afterward.

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