Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eye of the beholder, Part 2

So I was musing on my new high school building here in Part 1, and as longtime readers of WAD might expect, I diaspprove like a rabbit. However, I'm trying to check my self-righteous archifury as best I can. Problem is, just like the disapproving rabbits, I feel so much disdain...for mehchitecture.

Mehchitecture is the best way I can describe the bland, uncreative buildings and sites and you and I see on a regular basis. It's generally every strip mall and big box store you've seen, it's every chain store you've seen, every fast food joint, and more and more, it's every commercial building and office park you've seen. Strip windows. Stucco. Or worse, EIFS. A slightly angled canopy over the entry. A little barrel vaulting going on over part of the building. Yeah, okay. It feels like no one's even trying anymore. And by no one, I mean my fellow architects. It's our job to push the envelope with forms, materials, structure. It's our job to ask clients over and over again, "Is this how you work now, or is this how you want to work?" It's our job to look at whatever pissant town we're designing for and look for inspiration, for things and forms and colors and materials and ideas that help us design a building that looks interesting and fresh and yet timeless and yet fits into the context. That's a tall order. But that's why we go to school for 5+ years and practice for years and years before we get to take a much of tests and practice on our own, and we still never get it fully right. We learn on each project, but we forget it is also our job as architects to teach, to introduce our clients to something more, something better. You can have it so much better, we tell them. Look how much better this can look, how much more efficiently it can function, how easy it will be to expand when the time comes, when you do what we're suggesting. If I can't give my clients something better than a cruddy brick chunk with a huge gabled roof that's out of place on the building type, then why even waste the 7% to hire me?

Here's where I have to give my old high school some credit. They look like they spent some money on the interior, not blinging but rather pleasant. They used some creativity to make the dollaz go farther. But that's the point, isn't it? It's easy to make a building look badass when you have mad-crazy money; the challenge is how nice can you make a building look--and how durable and well-built is it--for what little you have? Let me say that I've been in a similar position on a hospital, where we cut landscaping dollars so that we can make the building's inside and outside look good and function well. Still, you can do a lot of really cool things with brick and metal trusses in order to make a building look really cool for little to no cost compared to doing something bland-looking.

I also appreciate the fact that they slightly overbuilt for now so that they can grow into the building(s). When I graduated from Booger County in 1994, we had about 600 students in grades 6-12 on our campus. Now, this campus is preparing to have as many as 1,500 kids grades 9-12 on the campus, and good on them. In healthcare architecture, we frequently design buildings and additions so that the facility can add on easily in the future, and they appreciate that. I've built shell space into several hospitals so that when they were ready, they could build up walls and doors and just connect to the plumbing lines that we'd already run in the slab. I don't know how my old school overbuilt for the future, but I applaud them. I also appreciate that they at least "splurged" on things like smartboards in the classrooms. Here's hoping that everyone embraces the technology.'s a li'l story to help illustrate the reason that the appearance of the school disturbs me most. Diane Travis (who is an epic genius) of the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute once told us a story of a county government that was trying to stop graffiti in their low-income housing neighborhood. They started talking to Diane about different coatings that they could put on their next low-income building's masonry exterior to keep graffiti from sticking. Diane then asked them what the planned exterior of this building was, and the county project manager informed her that it was CMU. That's right--concrete block for the exterior of this housing project building. Diane said (and I love her for this), "Well no wonder people are spray painting your buildings--they look awful. They look like highway underpasses, utility buildings, forgotton places. People don't take care of things that look like crap." For a very comparable cost, she showed them some other exterior masonry cladding options, such as split-face CMUs and bricks made of colored concrete. And guess what? The new, nicer-looking but not-any-more-expensive building never got tagged.

My hope for my new high school building is that the students feel good in that building, that they feel valued. I hope that they enjoy their new building and understand on some level what the Booger County school board was trying to do: give them a better place to learn so that they might be better prepared for the future. I fear that the mehchitecture that has been perpetrated on them might backfire, that new will not necessarily translate into nice. But I hope they'll have the sense to know that a) the school board tried, and b) it can be so. much. better. They're just going to have to go find it.


Miss Kitty said...

Shall Mom & I head up to Boogerville this weekend and take a few pictures of the infernal new structure? Might that prove educational for WAD readers? If not educational, then maybe snark-ational?

And my word verification is "unlie."

Wilderness Gina said...

Might be worth a look-see. Want I should go inside and see if photos are in order? "What? Who, me? I'm Osama's lacky looking for a place for him to stay when he comes to speak at the UN... oh wait that's not until NEXT month.. so sorry." THAT would get me in the building eh?

woolywoman said...

I grew uo in a G-dless subdivision. There were four house plans- you never had to ask where the bathroom was in your friends house- it was exactly where the bathroom was in all of the colonial, ranch, split level or other colonial. ( Called, inexplicably the "custom colonial").

The schools were the same- every elementary school ( I think there were six- all named after land forms that had never existed, such as Flat Creek, or Rolling Hills.) All the elementarys had the same floor plan. The three junior Highs- the same floor plan. The two High Schools? The same floor plan, except vo tech had a big shed like garage space for auto shop.

Worse, they had been designed during a decade when air conditioning was affordable. None of the windows opened. Only five years after they were built, the economy went bust and there was NO air conditioning, and no air at all. Many of the class rooms were on inside walls, and had no windows.

The single advantage to this architectural "style" was to focus my discontent with laser like precision on escape from the county, the metro area, and the state. I settled in a town with the highest number of Victorian and Craftsman house in the country.

St. Blogwen said...

Thinking about your comments about the student's comments about the new school . . .

I subbed for a teacher of HS French the other day. She left me a video to show the upper-level classes, of a helicopter's-eye view of the French Riviera region. The students' task was to record their impressions. I read a few of their papers at the end of the day, and I was pleased to see how many of them commented on the beauty of the architecture and were fascinated with and delighted by the compact configuration of the villages. This from kids in a rural/exurban area of SW Pennsy, littered with boring buildings you wouldn't call architecture in your deepest nightmare. So there is hope for teenagers' architectural sensibilities, if they're exposed to the right thing.