Having spent the last twenty years or so trying to figure out how a building works in space, I have been spending a lot of time over the last few years increasingly interested in how a building works in time. The young-architect years spent working out cutting-edge, avant garde work has given way to a more subtle deliberation over the span of life of a building. This has embodied itself in many different forms:
a growing concern and interest in life cycle costs of materials and sustainability
Issues of sustainability have been on the front-burner for most architects for quite a few years now. In Colorado, the environment, both political and natural, has pushed many of these issues further, faster than many other places. The standard practices of architects here are in general, far in front of our colleagues from other areas of the country.
This isn’t necessarily due to the fore-thought of the architects, but increasingly demanded by our clients and aggressive local energy codes. Of particular interest here is the sticky issue of embodied energy in buildings. This is extremely hard to calculate and assign value. As a result, most local energy codes and LEED do not give due credit for the energy saved in retaining a building instead of demolition. Most people think they should tear down and old, energy-inefficient building, but the cost in lost embodied energy takes some 40 years of savings to equal. And with notion of the most sustainable building is the one already there, that has lead me to…
a renewed interest in historic preservation and membership on the City of Boulder’s Landmarks Board
As more and more of my projects involved careful, surgical interventions in older buildings, my interest in the fabric of these buildings has dramatically increased. This is never more true than when some initial deconstruction has revealed old lath and plaster, exposed roof rafters and old double-hung window counterweights. These “technologies” were the latest and greatest of their day and are endlessly fascinating for a building geek like myself.
Of course there is also the realization that the buildings that were shiny and new when I was a kid are beginning to reach that critical 50-year mark that makes them eligible for preservation. In fact, many municipalities are cutting this time down to 20 years – the past is catching up with us. The notion of what and how to protect buildings, for their architectural or historical value or maybe just embodied energy, is quickly changing, establishing the building arts as an ongoing process, not one that is so reliant on notions of “completeness” or “originality”.
a increased fascination with the history of architectural problems, the recurring issues that architect’s have had to deal with over centuries of practice
As so many projects the past couple of years have been smaller and with tighter budgets, the architectural issues have in a sense become more distilled. Along with the occasional dog-house design, I have done a number of porch additions, often on older homes. What seems like at first a pretty simple project leads to a historically/architecturally rich conundrum. As a series of posts or columns are proposed, what happens when you take that porch around to the wall of the house? Do you put a pilaster or half-column on the wall to “receive” the porch? You don’t need this structurally, but it seems like it should be there to complete the post-and-lintel rhythm of the porch. How about an inside corner when the “column” is really buried inside the corner of two walls?
A simple problem, but one that architects have struggled with for centuries – Alberti, Palladio, Vitruvius, Michelangelo all wrestled with the same notion of architectural expression vs. structural “truth”. It certainly makes a simple porch addition into something richer and more interesting (are my client’s aware of this…sometimes, yes, sometimes, not)
ideology has been supplanted by historiography
Having never really been much of a formalist (much to the dismay of some of my former bosses), the supplanting of ideology by a more complex narrative, was not so much a shift as part of a long, slow slide over twenty years. Frankly, for most architects, ideology is greatly devolved into questions of merely architectural language – modern vs. traditional. To be anything other than a committed modernist was, and still is in some circles, seen as a moral failure of severest kind. Of course, Modernism itself has long been bleed of any moral values and to most Americans represents “corporate” style rather than its original utopian vision.
That architects haven’t and can’t seem to catch up with this is tragic. Some of the basic aesthetic notions embedded in modernism still resonant with me – simplicity, spatial richness, clarity – but to continue to cloak the preference for these qualities in an insistence on the use of an architectural language based on a style of architecture from 1920’s Europe… The time of a building has not replaced the space of a building in my interest or daily work. Rather it has become another layer of richness and potential meaning that seems too valuable to waste.