when your tool is a hammer…


…every problem becomes a nail.

Bill McKibben’s excellent New York Times op-ed yesterday makes several points about the pipeline battles that have galvanized upper midwesterners and other environmentally- and culturally-minded citizens over the last couple of years.  This hits close to home–the Dakota Access pipeline is scheduled to slice right across architecturefarm’s home county–but to me the most relevant paragraphs describes the outdated mindset behind these projects:

On questions of energy economics, Mr. Trump is stuck somewhere in the Reagan era, when energy independence at any cost was the watchword. He’s lost the plot of modern technological development. It’s sun and wind that are going to be our dominant sources of power as their prices continue to plummet. In fact, his approach may be even more antique: Fixating on Canada’s tar sands — where the economics of extracting low-quality crude have driven one big company after another out of that oil patch — is roughly equivalent, in its energy logic, to planning a sperm whale expedition.

There are many reasons why these projects have troubled activists, but this, to me, is the most symptomatic and worrying.  I imagine future archaeologists looking at these projects–which, after all, aren’t even about supplying energy to North America, they’re about getting Canadian oil to shipping in the Gulf of Mexico so that it can be exported–and seeing them as one of two things.  Either they portend the last gasps of a society so locked into its obsession with fossil fuels that they literally poisoned their groundwater and spent billions of dollars to suck the stuff out of tar sands in one of the most inhospitable and fragile ecosystems in the world.  Or they’ll be seen as indicators of oil’s end game; in hindsight, I’d imagine these will be barometers of just how far we’ve passed peak oil, and how much more economic sense sources like solar, wind, and even nuclear are going to make in the next century or two.  (Yes, it kills me to include nuclear.  But in the interests of keeping open minds, let’s acknowledge that the damage it’s caused in the last sixty years pales in comparison to that caused by fossil fuels).

The most depressing thing about these pipeline projects is how they so totally ignore the design and production advances that have–for the first time–made solar and wind economically competitive.  You don’t have to be a card-carrying progressive to feel disappointed that, just as the world’s design ingenuity seems to be paying off, and renewable energy seems not only feasible, but logical, these whaling expeditions are garnering so much attention, and so much support.

panama studio

Winter break hasn’t been all detective work in classic postwar skyscrapers and picking on  morally challenged partners at international design firms.  Iowa State’s annual CSI Prize Jury closed out a great studio semester by awarding Catie Mcclurg and Connor Yocum first place in this year’s competition.  They were in the interdisciplinary Panama Hospitality Studio that I taught with Interior Design Chair Lee Cagley, and deserved the recognition.  Our project, for an ecologically-oriented hotel along the entry to the Canal on the Amador Peninsula, was intentionally tough–how do you create a comfortable, international quality hotel that engages a rainforest reclamation project, is low embodied and life cycle energy, and makes a statement about urbanism in one of the fastest growing cities in the hemisphere?  Catie and Connor took all aspects of the challenge on board, starting with a section based on the varied flora and fauna in the rainforest canopy.  This idea came from our tours of Gamboa, the forest just outside the city, where towers give visitors access to the incredibly diversity that changes every few vertical feet.  This project oriented rooms and public areas according to the heights of various trees, including a restaurant and bar at treetop level, and upper stories that took advantage of views back to the main bulk of the city, to the north.

(Anastasia Sysoeva and Weicheng Chan)

Collaborative teams are one of the hallmarks of our approach to the NAAB Integrated Design requirement, and I jumped at the chance to expand on this by having Lee’s students join us.  Almost every team in our studio combined architecture and interior design students, and the results were impressive–we’re used to seeing architectural schemes that take structure, circulation, environmental response, and cladding seriously, but these dovetailed with space designs that focused on guests’ experiences and the fine-grained functionality of a complex program.  Any worries we might have had about adding too much range to the teams’ plates were pretty well dashed in the final review, where we saw projects that fluently pulled together all of these requirements.  Glad that the CSI Jury agreed…congrats to C+C, and to all of our students, for a great semester.  I’m hoping we’ll be able to do it again next Fall.  This time, I’ll know my way around the freeways well enough that we maybe won’t miss an exit and end up on the wrong continent…

(Britt Schenck, Melissa Brooks, Allie Shindoll)