What I’m reading…A New Map for America

From the NYT. “…there are now seven distinct super-regions, defined by common economics and demographics, like the Pacific Coast and the Great Lakes. Within these, in addition to America’s main metro hubs, we find new urban archipelagos, including the Arizona Sun Corridor, from Phoenix to Tucson; the Front Range, from Salt Lake City to Denver to Albuquerque; the Cascadia belt, from Vancouver to Seattle; and the Piedmont Atlantic cluster, from Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C.”





Basketball, Bluegrass & BBQ: an Architect’s Observations from the Field

flyerAsked to do a lessons learned recently. Also asked to host a TEDTALK-like conversation about CULTURE, QUALITY and PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT within my organization. In the end what got served up was some NC BBQ with a side of architecture in one Prezi. I organized my observations in 2 parts:


In Situ

Part 1: Maps & Legends offered “a slice” of NC, some of what I’ve learned about the place and a timeline of my connection to Architecture and NC for the last what…30 years: since those regular roadtrips in HS from VB to the Outer Banks; Architecture School in Charlotte; studying abroad and a handful of economy class (a la Eurail Pass and pre-Yelp paperback of Let’s Go Europe) Grand Tours in the Ecole de Beaux-Arts tradition; moving back to NC for work and family after grad school in Seattle; leaving NC for the Balto./DC region only to go back again to deliver a Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill; and now traveling back and forth more recently for a hospital project in Hillsborough.



bbq legend

Part 2: Plans & Specs put specific examples of the work into context, and by this I mean to emphasize that: what we draw (and I think these days we call it “modelling” now?) matters, what we spec. matters, and how immersing ourselves into the place (which is Part 1), can enhance outcomes, even elevate the work and our personal experience.

Sociotechnical Competency

Since I think all the time about the way we work and ways to contribute to the success of a project in the CA phase, I presented the loose use of the idea of “Sociotechnical Competency” from Wiki’s Sociotechnical theory about joint optimization, with a shared emphasis on achievement of both excellence in technical performance and quality in people’s work lives, to ask whether our teams possess the right balance of socio- and -technical competencies: does the work we do enhance the good work of those who use the spaces we design? Are we having fun? Is it meaningful, do we see our work as translating to improving the lives of others?

Lastly, I presented the view that in CA, we are charged with the task of being the one party in the O-A-C relationship with the big picture on the design. Yet we are asked detail questions all day long.

I argued that CMs go to CM school to make a living in CA and that there was nothing in Architecture School that could’ve prepared me for CA in particular, how to finesse professional and personal human interaction in real-time in the field: knowing when to pull back, to say wait a minute, think twice about our response or knee jerk, to understand the detail question in a larger context, 3 dimensionally, not only aesthetic effect or the often times very convincing case for ‘ease of constructability’, but adjacencies, downstream impact on work by other trades, cost implications, and so on.


I was studying for the AREs using those ArchiFlash cards years ago and there was this question that went something like: The Architect is the final arbiter of what aspect of a project? The answer was that we are the final arbiter of “aesthetic effect”. That’s it folks? We are both type-cast and hard-wired to take the designer’s position, when most of the time what’s best may often result in the ‘organic evolution’ of the original design idea. If we choose to choose our battles, we may arrive at a better product and reputation for service as a team player, seriously talented folks who are also fun and easy to work with, and who can relate to the needs of all the stakeholders.

The Prezi, which can be found here, offered some examples to illustrate what I mean when I say what we “model” matters, what we spec. matters, and how immersing ourselves into the context of the work – the programming and medical planning, the needs of the end-users, the patient experience and empathy: taking the caregiver, patient AND the visiting public’s point of view into consideration, how drawing from the collective experience of our organization and expertise of our consultants, and building on that experience – matters.


peds infusion

I believe we enhance outcomes in CA

Because design does not stop at the end of CDs and I believe we enhance outcomes in CA, make connections and connect the dots, to find deeper meaning in the work as we see our ideas through to fruition. Which is also why I say the Architect should have a seat at the table through to closeout and beyond, and come back 6mos. post-occupancy. And ideally onsite, especially for projects of this scale, complexity and long, drawn out durations.

A CM said to me once that this is the phase (CA) when the CM wins a client and the Architect loses a client. Do you believe that? I say, design offense is the best defense. Design matters. And when design inspires, its not a struggle. We win the client, and we all win.

Ubiquity & Rootedness

The Cancer Hospital was designed in Seattle. And it was easy to juxtapose the big, now ubiquitous innovations coming out of Seattle – there’s 3,000 miles between SEA and RDU after all –  to make a case for rootedness. Which is why it was imperative to set up a field office in NC. The outcome? Top-shelf design, connected to the community. As for the CA phase, there is no better perspective on the work, the people and the place than on the ground, in the trenches and onsite in the field. In Situ.

Michael Chabon on Columbia, MD

Michael Chabon wrote about growing up watching Jim Rouse’s vision manifest itself for Columbia, MD. I skipped right to the 2001 article, Maps and Legends in his 2008 non-fiction collection by the same name and offer it in its entirety below because it is so taggable! I inserted a few images for reference.
Michael Chabon on Columbia, MD

(The following article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, Writers on America.)

Maps and Legends
By Michael Chabon

In 1969, when I was six years old, my parents took out a Veterans Administration loan and bought a three-bedroom house in an imaginary city called Columbia. As a pediatrician for the Public Health Service, my Brooklyn-born father was a veteran, of all things, of the United States Coast Guard (which had stationed him, no doubt wisely, in the coast-free state of Arizona). Ours was the first V.A. housing loan to be granted in Columbia, Maryland, and the event made the front page of the local paper.

Columbia is now the second-largest city in the state, I am told, but at the time we moved there, it was home to no more than a few thousand people – “pioneers,” they called themselves. They were colonists of a dream, immigrants to a new land that as yet existed mostly on paper. More than four-fifths of Columbia’s projected houses, office buildings, parks, pools, bike paths, elementary schools, and shopping centers had yet to be built; and the millennium of racial and economic harmony that Columbia promised to birth in its theoretical streets and cul-de-sacs was as far from parturition as ever. In the end, for all its promise and ambition, Columbia may have changed nothing but one little kid. Yet I believe that my parents’ decision to move us into the midst of that unfinished, ongoing act of architectural and social imagination, altered the course of my life and made me into the writer that I am.

In the mid-1960s, a wealthy, stubborn, and pragmatic dreamer named James Rouse had, by stealth and acuity, acquired an enormous chunk of Maryland tobacco country lying along either side of the old Columbia Pike, between Baltimore and Washington. Rouse, often referred to as the inventor of the shopping mall (though there are competing claims to this distinction), was a man with grand ideas about the pernicious nature of the suburb, and the enduring importance of cities in human life. The City was a discredited idea in those days, burnt and poisoned and abandoned to rot, but James Rouse felt strongly that it could be reimagined, rebuilt, renewed.

He assembled a team of bright men – one of countless such teams of bright men in narrow neckties and short haircuts whose terrible optimism made the ’60s such an admirable and disappointing time. These men, rolling up their sleeves, called themselves the Working Group. Like their patron, they were filled with sound and visionary ideas about zoning, green space, accessibility, and the public life of cities, as well as with enlightened notions of race, class, education, architecture, capitalism, and transit. Fate, fortune, and the headstrong inspiration of a theorist with very deep pockets had given them the opportunity to experiment on an enormous scale, and they seized it. Within a relatively short time, they had come up with the Plan.

The Working Group (note the thin ties)
The Working Group (note the thin ties)

My earliest memories of Columbia are of the Plan. It was not merely the founding document and chief selling point of the Columbia Experiment. It was also the new town’s most treasured possession, the tangible evidence of the goodness of Mr. Rouse’s inspiration. The Plan, in both particulars and spirit, was on display for all to see, in a little building (one of Frank Gehry’s first built works) called the Exhibit Center, down at the shore of the manmade lake that lay at the heart of both plan and town. This lake – it was called, with the studied, historicist whimsy that contributed so much authentic utopian atmosphere to the town, Lake Kittamaqundi – was tidy and still, rippled by the shining wakes of ducks. Beside it stood a modest high-rise, white and modernistic in good late-’60s Star Trek style, called the American City Building. Between this, Columbia’s lone “skyscraper,” and the Exhibit Center, stretched a landscaped open plaza, lined with benches and shrubbery, immaculate, and ornamented by a curious piece of sculpture called the People Tree, a tall dandelion of metal, whose gilded tufts were the stylized figures of human beings. Sculpture, benches, plaza, lake, tower: On a sunny afternoon in 1970 these things had an ideal aspect; they retained the unsullied, infinite perspective of the architect’s drawings from which they had so recently sprung.

Early Frank Gehry: Columbia, MD
Early Frank Gehry: Columbia, MD
Late Frank Gehry: Bilbao, Spain
Late Frank Gehry: Bilbao, Spain

My parents, my younger brother, and I were shown those drawings, and many more, inside the Exhibit Center. There were projections and charts and explanatory diagrams. The famous Covenant – the common agreement of all Columbia’s citizens and developers to abide by certain rather strict aesthetic guidelines in constructing and altering their homes – was explained. And there was a slide show, conducted in one of those long-vanished 1970s rooms, furnished only with carpeted cubes and painted the colors of a bag of candy corn. The slide show featured smiling children at play, families strolling along wooded paths, couples working their way in paddleboats across Kittamaqundi or its artificial sister, Wilde Lake. It was a bright, primary-colored world, but the children in it were assiduously black and white. Because that was an integral part of the Columbia idea: that here, in these fields where slaves had once picked tobacco, the noble and extravagant promises that had just been made to black people in the flush of the Civil Rights movement would, at last, be redeemed. That was, I intuited, part of the meaning of the symbol that was reproduced everywhere around us in the Exhibit Center: that we were all branches of the same family; that we shared common roots and aspirations.

Sitting atop a cube, watching the slide show, I was very much taken with the idea – the Idea – of Columbia, but it was as we were leaving the Exhibit Center that my fate was sealed: as we walked out, I was handed a map – a large, fold-out map, detailed and colorful, of the Working Group’s dream.

The power of maps to fire the imagination is well known. And, as Joseph Conrad’s Marlow observed, there is no map so seductive as the one, like the flag-colored schoolroom map of Africa that doomed him to his forlorn quest, marked by doubts and conjectures, by the romantic blank of unexplored territory. The map of Columbia I took home from that first visit was like that. The Plan dictated that the Town be divided into sub-units to be called Villages, each Village in turn divided into Neighborhoods. These Villages had all been laid out and named, and were present on and defined by the map. Many of the Neighborhoods, too, had been drawn in, along with streets and the network of bicycle paths that knit the town together. But there were large areas of the map that, apart from the Village name, were entirely empty, conjectural – nonexistent, in fact.

The names of Columbia! That many, if not most of them, were bizarre, unlikely, and even occasionally ridiculous, was a regular subject of discussion among Columbians and outsiders alike. In the Neighborhood called Phelps Luck, you could find streets with names that were anglo-whimsical and alliterative (Drystraw Drive, Margrave Mews, Luckpenny Lane); elliptical and puzzling, shorn of their suffixes, Zen (Blue Pool, Red Lake, Spiral Cut); or truly odd (Cloudleap Court, Roll Right Court, Newgrange Garth). It was rumored that the naming of Columbia’s one thousand streets had been done by a single harried employee of the Rouse Company who, barred by some kind of arcane agreement from duplicating any of the street names in use in the surrounding counties of Baltimore and Anne Arundel, had turned in desperation from the exhausted lodes of flowers, trees, and U.S. presidents to the works of American writers and poets. The genius loci of Phelps Luck – did you guess? – was Robinson Jeffers.

I spent hours poring over that map, long before my family ever moved into the house that we eventually bought, with that V.A. loan, at 5179 Eliots Oak Road, in the neighborhood of Longfellow, in the Village of Harper’s Choice. To me the remarkable thing about those names was not their oddity but the simple fact that most of them referred to locations that did not exist. They were like magic spells, each one calibrated to call into being one particular stretch of blacktop, sidewalk, and lawn, and no other. In time – I witnessed it with my own eyes, month by month, year by year – the street demanded by the formula “Darkbush Terrace” or “Night Roost” would churn up out of the Maryland mud and clay, begin to sprout houses, trees, a tidy blue-and-white identifying sign. It was a powerful demonstration to me of the incantatory power of names and naming.

Eventually I tacked the map, considerably tattered and worn, to the wall of my room, on the second floor of our three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath pseudo-colonial tract house on Eliots Oak Road. In time the original map was joined, there, by a map of Walt Disney World’s new Magic Kingdom, and by another of a world of my own devising, a world of horses and tall grass which I called Davoria. I studied the map of Columbia in the morning as I dressed for school (a school without classrooms, in which we were taught, both by racially diverse teachers and by the experience of simply looking around at the other faces in the room, that the battle for integration and civil rights was over, and that the good guys had won). I glanced up at the map at night as I lay in bed, reading The Hobbit or The Book of Three or a novel set in Oz. And sometimes I would give it a once over before I set out with my black and white friends for a foray into the hinterlands, to the borders of our town and our imaginations.

Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom Map
Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom Map

Our Neighborhood of Longfellow was relatively complete, with fresh-rolled sod lawns and spindly little foal-legged trees, but just beyond its edges my friends and I could ride our bikes clear off the edge of the Known World, into that unexplored blank of bulldozed clay and ribboned stakes where, one day, houses and lives would blossom. We would climb down the lattices of rebar into newly dug basements, dank and clammy and furred with ends of tree roots. We rolled giant spools of telephone cable down earthen mounds, and collected like arrowheads bent nails and spent missile shells of grout. The skeletons of houses, their nervous systems, their subcutaneous layers of insulation, were revealed to us as we watched them growing from the inside out. Later I might come to know the house’s eventual occupants, and visit them, and stand in their kitchen thinking, I saw your house being born.

In a sense, the ongoing work of my hometown and the business of my childhood coincided perfectly; for as my family subsequently moved to the even newer, rawer Village of Long Reach, and then proceeded to fall very rapidly apart, Columbia and I both struggled to fill in the empty places, to feel our way outward into the mysterious gaps and undiscovered corners of the world. In the course of my years in Columbia, I encountered things not called for by the members of the Working Group, things that were not on the map. There were strange, uncharted territories of race and sex and nagging human unhappiness. And there was the vast, unsuspected cataclysm of my parents’ divorce, that redrew so many boundaries, and created, with the proverbial stroke of the pen, vast new areas of confusion and dismay. And then one day I left Columbia, and discovered the bitter truth about race relations, and for a while I was inclined to view the lessons I had been taught with a certain amount of rueful anger. I felt that I had been lied to, that the map I had been handed was a forgery. And after all, I would hear it said from time to time, Columbia had failed in its grand experiment. It had become a garden-variety suburb in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor; there was crime there, and racial unrest.

The judgments of Columbia’s critics may or may not be accurate, but it seems to me, looking back at the city of my and James Rouse’s dreams from 30 years on, that just because you have stopped believing in something you once were promised does not mean that the promise itself was a lie. Childhood, at its best, is a perpetual adventure, in the truest sense of that overtaxed word: a setting forth into trackless lands that might have come to existence the instant before you first laid eyes on them. How fortunate I was to be handed, at such an early age, a map to steer by, however provisional, a map furthermore ornamented with a complex nomenclature of allusions drawn from the poems, novels and stories of mysterious men named Faulkner, Hemingway, Frost, Hawthorne, and Fitzgerald! Those names, that adventure, are with me still, every time I sit down at the keyboard to sail off, clutching some dubious map or other, into terra incognita.

[Originally published in Architectural Digest 2001 Michael Chabon.]

[The prolific literary output of novelist and short-story writer Michael Chabon recently culminated with the publication of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000), an ambitious novel charting the adventures of two cousins who arrive in New York in the 1930s and get into the comic book business. Kavalier & Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Chabon is currently pressing ahead on a number of other major projects and publications.

His published work includes The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a novel, (1988) and Wonder Boys, a novel, (1995) as well as two collections of short stories, A Model World and Other Stories, (1990) and Werewolves In Their Youth (1999). His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, and Playboy, and in a number of anthologies, among them Prize Stories 1999: The O’Henry Awards. Much of his writing can also be found on his ingenious Web site, www.michaelchabon.com.

A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Chabon subsequently enrolled in the master of fine arts writing program at the University of California, Irvine. Chabon submitted the manuscript of a novel as his MFA thesis, and it was soon published in 1988, as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when Chabon was in his 20s. The New Yorker called Mysteries “a nearly perfect example of the promising first novel,” and other reviewers compared Chabon to such worthies as F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger. His next novel, Wonder Boys, was a bestseller, and became a movie starring Michael Douglas.

Chabon’s essay “Maps and Legends,” in this volume, stems from the circumstance of being born in 1964 in Columbia, Maryland, one of the very few planned towns in the United States. His luxuriant imagination, Chabon has avowed, stems in part from his high level of exposure to comic books in childhood, which were brought to him by his father. His father’s father, in turn, was a printer who printed many comic books and brought them to his son. Echoing many critics, Saul Austerlitz writes on the “Central Booking” Web site, “Michael Chabon is one of the most enjoyable, in addition to being one of the most acclaimed, writers to emerge in American fiction in the past decade?. He also avoids many of the games of his postmodern peers, preferring instead the simple, old-fashioned virtue of a story well-told. His books leave readers with the recollection of powerful, well-shaped characters and a gift for sharply pointed dialogue.”

Read more: “Maps and Legends” – http://www.america.gov/st/arts-english/2008/May/20080625202302eaifas0.7703211.html#ixzz0EYY7KHNR&A