“God is in the details,” a common refrain attributed to Mies van der Rohe, though probably as old as architecture itself provides the starting point for an exploration of design. It touches on the two extremes: “god” (a.k.a., the “big picture”) and the “details,” and, perhaps most interesting, where they meet. This first installment of my column will take a look at the big picture.
Every decision we make has a context, a frame of reference. In both architecture and real estate, our technical term for this is, “location, location, location.” This emphasis on place clearly carries weight in people’s sense of what determines architectural success, but what do we really mean when we refer to “location?” We could limit our understanding of location to a ZIP code, the buildings across the street, or the the latest four-letter moniker assigned by real estate folks (SoHo, LoDo, RiNo, anyone?). Alternately, we could broaden this perception to include abstractions such as history, culture, liberty, hope or peace. Human nature has a deeply rooted bias to a local, “now,” concrete view of context, but does this limit us? Should we widen the scope?
Let’s take smoking, for example. Yes, seemingly unrelated, but just go with me here. Smoking is a perfect example of our human tendency toward a short-term perspective on context. Smoking killed my grandmother the same way it killed many others; first glamorous then regrettable, but never obvious. Before she died, my grandmother insisted that I always remember an event that had much more clear and obvious implications for her: World War II. Watching her family die in the war, then serving in the Army, then fleeing as a refugee were events traumatic enough to give her a broader sense of perspective, of context, on many other issues, including smoking. Smoking was simply minuscule compared to the atrocities she witnessed as a young girl. After the war, she viewed the world through a global lens, making decisions based on the context of humanity, hope and community. Even in her smallest decisions, she considered her impact on the world. She urged me to never view the world as “us versus them,” but, rather, as “us.”
Much like my grandmother, after the war, an entire generation of architects, designers and planners took a global view on our built environment. During my educational life, I was taught and mentored by modernists – those who not only paid great attention to details such as new materials and open plans, but also impressed upon me the moral and ethical underpinning that deliberately created a common, global language of “us.” It is astonishing: In response to a devastating world war, the architectural community responded with a universal language, an International Style, which sought to erase the tribal and parochial differences they felt contributed to strife. Apparently, I was raised by my grandmother to be a modernist.
To quote Mies again, “Architecture is the will of an epoch, translated into space.” This “greatest generation” had a view of context that equated to “epoch,” their definition of location was deliberately global, befitting their experience of the era. Modernism was part of an optimistic perspective that created institutions such as NATO, the IMF and Social Security in addition to brick-and-mortar projects, such as public housing, which contributed to the common good and the prevention of another global armed conflict. Broadly, this perspective is conspicuous in the architecture from the 1950s through 1970s.
I am part of the generation that lacks the context of that war, finding the International Style boring and lifeless. We lack appreciation of the implications of Louis Kahn or Corbusie working in India and Iran, as easily as they worked in France and Connecticut. We focus on the deficiencies rather than the epic successes because we have the luxury of relative peace to do so. The very same programs that created public housing for returning veterans (the largest expansion of public and affordable housing ever) – and created a place for Jews and Germans to live together – specifically excluded black Americans and created conditions for many of our current societal tribulations. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater in effort to create a singular humanity wiped away huge swaths of rich cultural heritage, and it is fair to blame Modernism for erasing too much local culture. Location felt anonymous and continued to exclude. This shortsightedness, in the spirit of looking outward, ignored the interior struggle. As with my grandmother and her smoking, this neglect of the local context gave rise to the end of this era.
Emerging from the environmental awareness of the 1970s, Gen X architects responded with a new mantra: “Think global, act local,” which presented a manageable way of looking at the existential global threat of climate change. There were many popular “isms” during this period trying to replace Modernism – some richly aware of location, but most characterized by a complete absence of location. In contrast, LEED and the green building movement inadvertently emerged as a counterpoint to these “isms,” presenting an accessible, site-specific toolkit for responding to climate change with a global perspective, which may be the real Modernism of our generation. The idea of location manifested as simultaneously global and local, now including concerns such as air, water, daylight and culture.
Today, there are local movements in architecture, which respond to climate, culture and local opportunities, while still respecting global ideals. Regional examples, such as Glen Mercutt in Australia, Vo Trong Nghia in Vietnam, the Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle, and Snohetta in Oslo, are broadly emulated for evolving a new modern architecture. A global (small m) modern architecture, which embraces the relevance of local materials, local climate and local craft, contributes to global health in the same way that local food movements improve our relationship to the land and local beers are rebuild local culture. Architecture rooted in location contributes in ways very similar to local food and craft beer.
For those of us who build today, we are charged with developing our understanding of location around the balance between thinking globally and acting locally. As Denver grows and prospers, decisions on housing, design, architecture and urbanism are made every day. Many of these decisions are made, evaluated and criticized based on a context, which too often sees “local” only through the limited lens of property values. I believe it is possible to have discussions about growth, not as “us” versus “them,” but as a civil society, growing Denver toward common values and goals, such as accessible housing for all, maintaining and broadening the reach of prosperity, and, yes, global peace. Denver’s current growth is as much a product of its international airport as its local beer, and the urban fabric will be richer when we consider “location, location, location” within the context of a global place with local impacts. \\