Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Architecture is a way of seeing the world. It is a process of asking questions. Designing buildings is a means to create experiences. Architecture is about choosing to be the type of people we want to be, in spaces that engage rather than limit us. Architecture is about living intentionally. It is about observing closely, drawing conclusions and manifesting them in the world.

When I walk into a bar or a friend’s house or a restaurant, I see a theater set. This is the set upon which we play out our interaction. I see whether the door opens and disappears, or whether it feels looming, the entryway congested while it catches on shoes and clutter. I see the arrangement of furniture and objects moving into the space. Where am I most drawn to sit? Where is the light coming from? Is there anything in my way, subconsciously frustrating my efforts? After a while, I begin to take in more detail. I see the HVAC equipment grafted on to the ceiling, evocatively or apologetically exposed. I see the graceful bends in the electrical conduit where it turns to run down the wall. I see the conjunction where the old growth post and beam structure meets the steel I-beam retrofitting, the suture between old and new. I draw information from these intersections. How old is the structure? How many iterations has it gone through? How much attention to detail has been paid to its invisible spaces? Is it loved? Does it feel welcoming? Is this person someone who will put up with a loose door handle for years rather than take five minutes minutes to tighten it? Is their space chaotic or does it convey a sense of harmony, peace, intention in thought and action? The spaces we allow ourselves to exist in say as much about us as we do when we sit down to talk. Quite possibly, they say things we could never put into words.

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I've gotten to the point of writing my Letter of Intent for grad school applications, thought I'd include some drafts and musings here in the blog.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Spider's Web

I just watched out the back door for maybe ten minutes while a spider completely dissembled its web. I've never seen this and never knew they could do it. I think the spider understood that I was going to walk out the door (we don't use the back door much), and decided to conserve its resources rather than let me destroy its web. This is another thing I never knew they could do - re-consume/absorb/store their web and reuse it. Spiders are totally fucking green.

When I first opened the door, the web was a glorious complete figure blocking about half the doorway off. After it had been long enough that I realized what was happening and ran to grab the camera, the web looked like this:

As I watched, the spider traversed out to the extreme lower ends of its web and drew the web back into it little by little. I couldn't figure out if it actually has a way to pull the web back in to its abdomen to be redeployed like a tape measure recoils, or whether it was consuming its web to digest and reuse the material or something else entirely. What I can say is that the web seemed to be disappearing - a surprising quantity of it, and it certainly wasn't trailing or dangling behind like you might expect if it wasn't going into the spider's body.

The next thing that happened was the stuff nature documentaries are made of. After the spider had all but dismantled all traces of its web, it begun spraying multiple strands of silk with great force out its abdomen and into the night.

You can see the freaking exclamation marks all over as this stuff is shot out with so much force the camera captures it as a blur in the long exposure. I have never seen a spider do this before. My best guess is that it has neatly and precisely recoiled all its used silk and is now expulsing it at with much force to hopefully catch onto to some new surface from which to begin a new web. Here's an illustration:

This makes me wonder, What else are the spiders hiding from us, those crafty bastards?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The City

I've been reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. From what I've gathered, it's a very influential, sort of pop-urban planning text that turned convention on its head when it came out in 1961 and is now canon.

The book basically tries to define what a healthy city is, and identify strategies to encourage their development.

The city looms large in my thoughts right now. It's such an incredible creature; a mythical beast. Cities emerge up out of the landscape like giant, chaotic stalagmites, like computer circuit boards. Their formation is so convoluted, the result of many forces and intentions pushing and pulling in so many different directions - and yet their fabric is interconnected along so many routes, they take on an almost organic existence, become a single, living entity.

Jane Jacobs doggedly pursues diversity in city life. Her focus is largely economic diversity - diversity of use. She posits that for an area to be healthy, it should be vibrant, glowing with people, connections and intersections. To her, the city fulfills needs and creates community. A healthy city street fosters contact between neighbors, it serves to socialize children, providing role models and varied adult influence, and the busier it is, over the largest possible spread of hours, it works to ensure safety. Jane Jacobs' city is the anti-suburb, it is mixed use taken as far as it can go, people heaped on top of people all living and breathing and brushing up against each other out in the streets.

Anita and I are at a point in our life together where we're starting to turn over from placeless 20-somethings to people who want to have careers, own a home, have kids some day, and engage with a place. We're becoming more specific, you could say. This focusing raises many questions, one of which is Where to be? It's something we've talked round and round, and researched and thought about. Where to live? A city?

I don't really think of Seattle as a city. Seattle is more like a glorified town that has the economy of a city. As of 2009, only 617,000 people actually live in Seattle city limits, which ranks 23rd in the country. New York city alone has over 8 million. But what sets Seattle out to me is how much of it is single family housing and how much of the city is green. In almost any neighborhood in the city, if you unfocus your vision and just observe colors, you can turn 360 degrees and more than likely you'll end up with a 50% green field of vision. Seattle has trees everywhere, landscaping, and huge, wooded parks. There's an old growth tree I'm thinking of in north Capitol Hill that's probably 6 feet in diameter, just shaking the sidewalk off as it stakes its claim to the land. Hell, I did a search for the last bear (as in, yes, the large furry species of mammal not the, well, nevermind) and it was freaking 2006. The poor thing was Tasered and tranquilized to death by police and wildlife agents several blocks off campus in the U District. When I can step outside and actually see the stars and maybe get mauled by a black bear, sorry, but that's not a city.

These are the elements Jane Jacobs identifies as contributing to vibrant, healthy city atmospheres:

Mixed Uses - Limited not only to commercial and residential, but broken down to include different types of activities that give people reason to be in a place at different times of day. For example, a park where people walk their dog in the morning before work, housewives take their children midday, business people eat lunch, children play in the afternoon, and lovers stroll at night. For this park to be vibrant, it must be near residences, offices, nightlife, restaurants, a school, etc. Without this level of activity, the park threatens to become dead, unused, unloved, and even dangerous.

Short Blocks - Short blocks encourage penetration by pedestrians into streets they would never have reason to pass through. This allows the success of small businesses on street corners and further in. Jane demonstrates with drawings and experience how a particularly long street, which no one save the people who live on that street have reason to traverse, can create a dead zone which cannot maintain health or vigor.

Aged Buildings - Surprisingly, Jane specifically points out the value of having a mix of old and new buildings in a neighborhood. She has an excellent chapter where she demonstrates how high rent and low rent structures combine to create vitality and health. She identifies certain types of businesses as barometers of the health of an area, specifically used book stores. (Interestingly enough, Joel Garreau, who definitely read this book and is the writer of Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, cites this exact same indicator.) A used book store cannot afford to rent a new space. Newly built spaces require high rents to pay down the loans needed to built them. While used book stores, art galleries, artist lofts, camera repair shops and so on may attract people to an area, this very attraction will destroy itself if it's developed too far. Similarly, an area that sees no development will fall into disrepair, fail to attract investment or businesses, and potentially become a dead and dangerous place. Either way, the danger is too much of one thing, which she identifies as a natural tendency in city evolution to be guarded against.

And lastly,

Density - Jane says each city and each block within each city carries its own set of circumstances and conditions that make it impossible to proscribe an ideal density. She ultimately ends up suggesting a number somewhere above 100 dwelling units per acre.

Beyond the poignancy and accessibility of her arguments, her style is engaging. The book is peppered with quotations from literature and culture used to introduce topics and underscore points. Here is one of my favorites, used to illustrate how proscribing one density standard for all cities would be ridiculous:

"What are proper densities for city dwellings?

The answer to this would be something like the answer Lincoln gave to the question, 'How long should a man's legs be?' Long enough to reach the ground, Lincoln said."

I have a lot of friends, my girlfriend included, who find cities abhorant creatures. They find them to be confusing, congested, polluted, distasteful, dead concrete places that preclude any possibility of living life naturally. This line of thinking inevitably ends up with some variation on a back-to-the-land theme, where you can run free in the fields and pick your food straight from the earth.

There is a certain allure in this way of life to me. I see the intuitive flow and simplicity. I see the sense of having a direct link to the natural world, and how we're divorced from that in the city. I see the mental and emotional lightness of having space and time and air and light and living life at a slower, more deliberate pace. I think there are two things that keep me from throwing my suitcase in the car and leaving my phone and computer behind and never looking back. One, is the vitality of cities, and the other is a sense of engagement in the human process and responsibility toward the whole.

The Responsibility Angle

When things are not feasible for everyone, because they arise out of a set of specific, unreplicatable circumstances, they aren't solutions. I think of these things are not existing, not being real.

If you didn't have to work because you were on a trust fund and were able to do unpaid internships until you were offered a sweet job, that's good for you, but it doesn't help me understand how to get a good job. If you inherited $20,000 from your rich uncle and used it to put a down payment on a house, fine, but it doesn't give me insight into how to own a house. Given the population on the planet, I don't think the idyllic, bucolic small town life is possible any longer. Sure it will continue to exist and people will continue to live in and enjoy it, but it's a dead paradigm, a fragment of a past that is slowly disappearing. It doesn't offer a solution anymore, because it isn't sustainable for everyone to have a 20 acre farm with a pond and a little patch of woods where they hunt their own meat and build a treehouse for their kids. I may even be lucky enough some day to be able to choose this life, but I think it would feel like giving up to me, retreating, burying my head in the sand and leaving the world to deal with its problems on its own.

So, do I want to live in a city? It's a tough question. I find myself drawn to that small town life all the same. It has its charm, its direct, emotional appeal. I've never lived anywhere that didn't have ground level access. That, to me, is what makes a city. I grew up in a house in the suburbs on a 3/4 acre property with nice big Ash trees and a front yard half the size of a football field. I hated the monotony of the suburbs, so I moved to a city that's full of life and culture and a mixture of uses, but still I've sought out stand-alone homes to rent rooms in. I've always wanted ground level access, to be able to just walk outside barefoot and step on some grass, to drag my 5 gallon batch of beer outside so as not to spill it inside when transferring and cooling, to sit on the porch and sand a wood-working project, or let it sit drying with paint or chemicals I wouldn't want inside. I've never pushed myself to give this up, and so, in some way, I've never really embraced the city.

100 dwelling units per acre amounts to at least 150-200 people living on the footprint of my parent's property.

The co-housing community where I live now, which feels, to me, like a very healthy and well-designed level of density, is exactly 3/4 of an acre (according to the King County Parcel Viewer, which is an awesome tool for these kind of things). There are 23 dwelling units on this site, with approximately 60-70 people living here. This is suburban density level according to Jane Jacobs; she would have 4 times as many people living on this land. Her vision, I suppose, is mostly composed of 3-5 story buildings with commercial below, residential above, and the occasional large lot for a library, community center, park, or other public facility. The only part of Seattle that has these densities is Downtown. I don't think Capitol Hill even comes close to this. This is why I say Seattle isn't a real city.

The Vibrancy Angle

The thing that's great about cities, and that's a result of their density, is that cities are pulsating and bursting with life. It takes so many people crammed into such a tight place to create some things, things which wouldn't exist otherwise. Cities have always been the places of innovation and invention in society. Cities are where ideas come from, and where the human experiment is pushed forward. Cities are exploding with people scheming, striving, growing, changing, yearning, and creating. What is an isolating individual tendency in a small town becomes a full blown, righteous, in-your-face subculture in a city, and it can support any number of such subcultures, all overlapping and interacting in interesting ways. Cities are the mecca of this cultural diversity as well as Jane Jacobs' economic diversity, racial diversity, and any number of other things that make life interesting and worth living. As much as I appreciate nature, I am also a student of culture, and while the city may look like a dead concrete place to some, I see the weeds growing up through the sidewalk and generally find them so much more interesting for it.


I don't know where this goes. I guess you live life to find out your story. I'm interested to have the conversation with any of you, and hear your thoughts, because it's something that I haven't figured out, and what are we here for but to huddle together and hem and haw and generally kick about until someone looks up and says "Yes. That there!" and points off into the distance?