Baconbits

This whole daily blogging thing is going well. It’s nice to get back into it.

I still don’t have any answers about the future and where my words will be but I’m trying to float and accept that things are unfinished and always will be. Life is a work in progress as are all of us.

I went to Baconbits yesterday where they were screening of One Big Home, a doc about huge homes on Martha’s Vineyard. The doc was very American and made some very interesting points about home size but I also think it missed some things — one doc made by one guy will never get all the things. I also have some thoughts about the discussion afterwards.

Professional responsibility

An architect on the island was interviewed at length in the film. He defended his decision to work on commissions for huge homes that were out of character with the community and causing habitat loss. While he is entitled to the right to do his job I wondered what his professional responsibilities are. He answers to something higher than just money and his ego. Planners, architects and landscape architects are part of bodies with standards and values. These professional bodies act as gatekeepers and have a monopoly on providing services because of those standards. I am not a part of one of these professions but I’d potentially like to be in the future.

As an architect you answer to something higher and yet this architect in the film didn’t seem to think so. When Vishaan Chakrabarti spoke at Design Matters in April he raised this very question. If architects take commissions for anything like building Trump’s border wall or BIG’s work for Fox News’ studios at Ground Zero then architecture isn’t much of a profession at all. There have to be guiding principles and a sense of responsibility. Chakrabarti’s firm PAU lists work that they don’t do on their website including:

  • Single-Family Suburban Homes
  • Suburban Subdivisions, Malls and Office Parks
  • Work for Autocratic/Dictatorial Nations
  • Work for Nations with Unacceptable Labor Practices
  • Work for Clients with Unacceptable Environmental Practices
  • Correctional Facilities
  • Casinos / Facilities for Slot-Machine Gambling
  • Facilities that Manufacture Arms

This is because Chakrabarti feels he shouldn’t do work he doesn’t believe in because architecture is about more than making money. I agree with him. I think that anyone working in a built environment profession has a responsibility to best practices and the good of the community.

At the AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 Michelle Obama spoke about how architecture ties in with diversity, gender and equity issues. Architecture matters and it comes with responsibilities.

When asked by Vonier, “What’s it like working with an architect?” Obama praised the efforts of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects on the design of the Obama Presidential Library. “I don’t get to work with them often but our architects are so much fun,” she said. “The creative process—space, time—they think about things that we wouldn’t ever think of. We’re also closely considering the exterior, how it will relate to the community. The architects we’re working with are phenomenal; they’re listening, they’re doing their homework, they’re researching and starting to understand the South Side of Chicago.”

The crowd, some 5,500-strong, erupted into cheers after Vonier reminded everyone that Michelle’s husband, former President Barack Obama, once wanted to be an architect.

“Barack is an artist,” she shared, “though he tries to downplay it. He’s the kind of guy who says, ‘I don’t care what the living room looks like,’ and then has a thousand questions and opinions about everything. He’s someone with ideas, he’s someone who thinks big. That’s what architects do too, right?”

I included that entire whole long quote because I like how it ends with architects think big right? The same can be said of planners, landscape architects and urban designers. Design is a fundamentally optimistic act. Through it we remake the world around us and can either make it better or worse.

3,000sqft vs. 15,000sqft

A lot of the movie was about how big is too big. The homes being built on Martha’s Vineyard are enormous and palatial and make Versailles look normal. I can’t think of any reason for any one family to have a 10,000sqft or 20,000sqft house. They’re basically a hotel or summer camp facility. To make it worse they only drop by sometimes during the high season on the island so it’s just a huge vacation home.

After the film we got into a debate about whether or not the filmmaker sold out by building a 3,000sqft house for his young family. He sounded similar when talking about it to the way that one lady spoke about her 11,000sqft home had. Our moderator/host for the evening seemed to argue that there was no difference between the two because the words were the same. I can point out one really obvious difference: about 8,000sqft.

Sure the filmmaker probably didn’t needed vaulted ceilings and could’ve designed the house to be more modest but he didn’t have a bowling alley or more space than some schools. It was a big house but still a middle class one. The other was a palatial mansion for the ultrarich that was excessive beyond all reason.

When you act like 3,000sqft and 15,000sqft are the same because people talk about them using similar words you are missing the point. There are a group of people in the US so wealthy that they can actually afford a palatial mansion to spend a month or two at each year. The other is a home that might be on the big side that someone lives in full-time that is on par with many homes built these days. Sure, you can discuss the growth in average home size and how it’s becoming insane but this film was about the ultrarich and their sprawling mansions.

I also found it crazy that during the discussion people were implying that raising his family in a shoebox condo would totally be a viable option for this conservation minded filmmaker. One of our biggest problems we have in Canada today is that people are expected to either live in a single-detached home or a shoebox condo. There’s this hashtag going around called missing middle. You don’t necessarily need 3,500sqft but people do need space to live. I want an office and space to keep the stuff for my assorted ever expanding hobbies. I’d like to not eat dinner at my couch. Does that make me evil or does it mean that maybe we need a variety of housing types? I am not a monk and neither are most people. I don’t want a huge home, I have no idea what I’d do with one. I can’t think of any reason for anyone to have a home that large. Still I can think of lots of reasons for people to occupy the 1,000sqft to 2,500sqft range. We need to provide housing that fulfills this need. Telling people to move into a microcondo is not the solution.

Yankee doodle dandy

There were a lot of very American discussions about the role of government in the film. They wanted to impose a limit on house sizes to stop people from going totally bananas. In the end they won. Along the way a lot of people said they felt uncomfortable telling people what they could and could not do. There was a lot of talk about individual liberty. There was a lot of let the ultrarich do what they want.

It was an American film screen hosted by planner with strong ties to the US in a Canadian city. There are a lot of weird ideas about government, property and wealth that Americans have that don’t cross the border and shouldn’t cross the border. I have lived in Europe and can bring that perspective to this film. Not everyone in the audience can. It’s important for us to challenge these notions and fight back against them.

I believe that government is good and beneficial. I believe that there are greater aims that we must work together to defend than letting each individual do whatever they want, especially if they happen to be particularly rich.

The logical end stage of this hatred for government and support for letting people do whatever they want is Trump’s America. The EPA is being destroyed. A bunch of people just lost access to healthcare. There are mass shootings every day. This is what it means to let people do whatever they want and to let money and powerful vested interests run your country.

In Canada we got peace, order and good government, not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The values that have caused the US to fall apart are not what we need here. Government is useful and good. We should make rules about what people can do and what they can build. We should protect sensitive environmental areas. Zoning exists. We tell people lots of stuff every day. Let’s make it work for us.

I am reminded of the 99 PI episode about the origins of egress. It’s one that’s beautiful and moving and makes you feel like humans are essentially good.

Marriam-Webster defines egress as:

  1. 1 :  the action or right of going or coming out

  2. 2 :  a place or means of going out :  exit

In a planning bylaw egress is your emergency exits. It’s your ability to get out. It’s someone in some government building taking care of you in the rare chance that you might need their protection. If your house is burning down and you survive it is because someone you will never meet made sure you would be able to escape. They took care of you. Because humans for all our brains and iThings are fragile creatures. We are easily injured and broken. We need protecting. Bad things happen. When they do we have governments and laws and communities. We have each other. At least in Canada we do most of the time. In the US you are on your own. Hopefully you were born rich and white and without a preexisting condition.

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