mcmansion hell–this shall not stand!

Stop press–McMansion Hell, the blog that pointedly and hilariously skewers the worst of American residential construction, has been taken down after Zillow threatened legal action over the use of pictures from its website.  The blog has been required viewing for the last year or so, and it’s done a great job of stretching beyond its original mandate and providing genuinely insightful commentary on and explanations of a huge variety of architectural subjects.

Kate Wagner, the blog’s brilliant author, has promised it will be back up again after she seeks legal counsel, but as many commenters have pointed out, taking content from the web for the purposes of criticism is not just “fair use,” it’s also “fair game.

Want to help support free expression in architectural criticism?  Hit McMansion Hell every so often and send some supporting comments when it does come back up.  And you might also tweet at know what you think of having lawyers send out intimidating letters when someone pokes fun at your target demographic…

cladding and fire


Mika Grondahl, New York Times

A remarkably good piece in this morning’s New York Times about last week’s fire in Grenfell Tower in London.  The mechanics of the fire were instantly apparent from videos and photos–fires climbing the exterior of a high-rise have become common in the last couple of years, and they’re symptomatic of flammable cladding materials.  Once ignited, polyethylene insulation (in this case) burns quickly, and the heat it generates causes a chimney effect in the confined space between the building structure and the sheets of aluminum or whatever other material forms the outside shell.  Rising air feeds the fire with oxygen, the process accelerates, and if this occurs above the reach of firefighters’ ladders and hoses there is no way to extinguish it.  Two fires in Dubai in 2014 and 2015, and incidents in Scotland, Australia, and the U.S. have all demonstrated the same fire behavior, and making the exterior skin of a building fire resistant, or at least incombustible, has always been an important element of building codes.  It’s life safety 101.

Alcoa detail

Shawn Barron and Saranya Panchaseelan, ISU CHiRG

We’ve actually been looking at similar details in postwar building skins this year in our research group, and one building in particular stands out as an example of how thin metal skins should be composed for fire resistance.  The Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh (1953) pioneered the use of sheet aluminum as a cladding material, installed over a concrete-covered steel structural frame.  If you look closely at the digital model, you can see that the  floor plate hits a vertical band of metal panels (stamped with an “x” shape) that are backed up by solid precast panels.  These panels stick up and down from the edge of the floor, and they’re designed specifically to keep fire from spreading from one floor to the other.  Any insulation is on the interior of the panels, and the space between those panels and the aluminum skin itself is broken up by firestops at the floor levels (and by the window frames).

Code requirements for those upstand and down stand fireproof panels were seen as pretty conservative in the 1950s, and in fact Inland Steel in Chicago was among the first projects to get around the typical understanding of even a glass curtain wall as a plane of solid, fire-resistant material punched by glass windows.  Inland got away with a lot, including exiting requirements, but its curtain wall passed muster by reducing the fireproof panels to simple spandrel covers that extend only over the depth of the building’s edge girders.  While codes relaxed considerably, allowing cladding systems that wouldn’t necessarily have stopped a fire, this came in an era when other technologies–building sprinklers in particular–came along that could have.  Provisions to prevent the building skin from contributing to a fire included requirements that the exterior materials be at least fire resistant, and that cladding systems include firestops–horizontal bands of fire- and smoke-proof material that would keep fire from spreading up through voids within the curtain wall.

We often talk in tech classes about how difficult it is, in today’s regulatory environment, to get a really serious building fire going.  Codes have developed into good balances of conservative practice and common sense.  Sprinklers activate when a fire is detected, and the size and composition of spaces are calibrated to contain fires for at least an hour–and in some cases up to four.  Meanwhile, all building spaces with a population of over 50 are supposed to have two exits, so that occupants’ routes aren’t blocked, and alarms and fire drills are supposed to notify anyone in a burning building, and to give them an intuitive sense of what a safe route out of the building should be.  People complain about the onerous requirements of codes, and they resent the time and disruption of fire drills, but put together these represent advancements in life safety that rival, say, vaccinations for the positive impact they’ve had.  People simply hadn’t been killed in high rise fires in jurisdictions that had up-do-date codes for decades.  When this did happen–as in the Brunswick fire in Chicago in 2003–it usually highlights shortcomings in the code.  (In that case, the building had been grandfathered in and had no sprinklers–an oversight that remains a problem in Chicago).

So, what went wrong at Grenfell?  In a word, everything.  The tower had been re-clad recently, and anti-regulatory sentiment had moved the U.K. and local governments to devolve enforcement of fire codes to a form of ‘self-policing.’  A financially strapped contractor made a substitution to the original specs for fire-resistant insulation, which is more expensive.  The tower itself was originally built in an era of fiscal austerity and a desperate need for new housing,  and inattention to basic exiting principles meant that the tower had a single staircase.  Worse, residents had been instructed to remain in place on the upper floors in the event of a fire alarm–good advice for a typical building fire, which spreads from the inside out, assuming that walls and doors have proper fire resistance.  But, in this case, residents would have been better off evacuating away from the inferno taking place on the exterior, and toward the relative safety of the interior stair.

The blame here is stunningly obvious, and various activists have pointed out that collusion–inadvertent or not–between politicians promising to “cut red tape” and industry suppliers, installers, and contractors seeking to provide the cheapest possible alternatives led in this case to consequences that, given the cladding fires of 2014-2015, should have been readily apparent.  Particularly galling is the culpability of Arconic, the supplier of the flammable cladding system.  Arconic is the re-branded name of Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America, whose metal-clad headquarters were built in 1953 with proper fire-resistant principles in mind.  Their marketing materials for the system installed on Grenfell suggested that it was an inappropriate choice for high rises because of this danger, but in Britain this was tempered with a phrase deferring to local building codes.

If, as in this case, those codes have been decimated by political maneuvers to ease the profit-making of the building industry at the expense of the citizens living in proximity to such bureaucratic indifference to human life, then even the supplier has to bear ethical and moral culpability for this disaster.


flyover manifesto I–iowa and its architecture

Keynote Address to Building Technology Educators’ Society Annual Meeting,

Des Moines, IA, June 2017


iowa map

Iowa, 1842.  [Library of Congress]

There is evidence of human settlement in Iowa going back more than 13,000 years.  Corn has been a staple of agriculture here for the last millennium.  This area, where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers meet, was inhabited by Pawnee and Ioway people when French explorers led by Marquette and Joliet explored the Mississippi River in 1673.  Lead on that river’s banks, and furs from forests farther inland meant that European settlement here was about trading natural resources from its earliest days.  Briefly under Spanish control, Iowa was ceded back to France under Napoleon in 1800, and then sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  The state was mapped and plotted in 1805 and its flat geography has made it a paradigmatic example of the “Jeffersonian Grid’s” reach and relentlessness.  The state was opened to European-Americans in June, 1833. Those bound for California sought adventure and fortune, but Iowa’s settlers were the pragmatists who crossed the Mississippi, found tillable soil, abundant timber, and a more or less tolerable climate and sought nothing further.  If Utah’s foundation motto is “This is the Place,” and California’s is “Eureka,” Iowa’s might well be “This Will Do.”  (In fact, it’s “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” which is close).

grant wood

Grant Wood, Breaking the Prairie Sod.
Parks Library, Iowa State University.  1935-37. [Iowa State University Libraries].

Those founding pragmatists were Congregationalists and Puritans, and they brought with them a sensibility that saw good works not as a means of salvation, but rather as the fruits of it.  This spiritual value placed on work translated well in an environment that demanded constant effort and attention; with floods, tornadoes, and blizzards, Iowa has three deadly seasons that behoove an awareness of the horizon and preparation for the worst.  While Iowa’s soil is some of the world’s most fertile, the state’s vast size and sparse population meant that these settlers had to be self-reliant and fluent in carpentry, blacksmithing, animal husbandry, and other crafts.  Dwellings were plain but well-constructed, compact to keep heat in the house during winter, but able to open up to the warm summers and to brief but appreciated autumns and springs.  For Iowa’s first decades as a Territory and then, in 1846, as a state, there was little besides agriculture to drive the economy.  Subsistence farming soon gave way to commercial enterprise, though, due to progressive, scientifically-based county and state fairs that spread knowledge to the state’s far-flung population.  Education was promoted as the best route to improve agricultural practices and quality of life—Iowa was the first state to take advantage of the 1862 Morrill Act, which used a gift of federal land to expand “Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm” into what is now Iowa State University.  Iowans were also progressive regarding social issues.  The Territory’s first supreme court case, in 1839, established freedom for anyone who set foot in Iowa.  John Brown’s abolitionist March in 1859 received support across the state, and an Underground Railroad route through Iowa freed hundreds of enslaved Missourians.  Iowa sent more recruits per capita to the Union army than any other state, leading Ulysses S Grant referred to the state in 1864 as “the bright Radical star.”  Iowa’s emancipatory stance blended Lincoln-era Republican values—thrift, discipline, and a generosity and tolerance toward others—with those of the Progressive movement, which stressed modernization, equality, and a growing belief in science-based solutions to socio-economic problems.  While the state’s politics have shifted to the right, they are still defined by this tension between conservatism and progressivism, a tension moderated by our first-in-the-nation caucuses, where we cast our votes in public after open debate with our neighbors.

Iowa’s greatest boom came with the railroads, which provided the means to transport the state’s bounty to commodities markets in Chicago; our population doubled during the rail decades of the 1860s and 1870s, to over a million. This growth slowed in the early 20th century, and the Depression and the 1980s farm crisis both caused extensive damage to the agricultural economy here.  Today, agriculture accounts for just a quarter of the state’s economic output, trailing manufacturing, but it comprises over 90% of the state’s land area.  Agriculture is celebrated annually at our iconic State Fair, which boasts an attendance every year of roughly a million, a full one-third of all Iowans.  But the state has seen constant demographic shifts in the last decades that have eroded its farming population while building strong urban centers.  Rural counties in the south and west have seen precipitous drops in population as corporate agriculture has replaced family farms, but Des Moines has seen robust growth—indicative of Iowa’s changing economics, but also of a pragmatic city government here and partnerships between public and private entities that have transcended politics and built a genuine hub for the state.

dsm skyline

Des Moines Skyline
Des Moines Register, Nov. 25, 2015.

An aggressive masterplan begun in the 1990s rejuvenated Des Moines’ downtown, but where other cities “renewed” by displacing poorer residents, Des Moines displaced blocks of auto dealerships and light industry, creating an urban axis that has become the symbol of the city’s changing culture.  Along with healthy markets in insurance, finance, and agricultural industry, Des Moines has nurtured a community of designers and entrepreneurs who have in turn built an entertainment and arts culture that is homegrown and remarkable in its depth and quality.  The Des Moines Social Club, which opened in 2014 in a disused fire station on downtown’s southern edge, has been just one catalyst for this resurgence.  80/35, an annual music festival that takes over Western Gateway park for one weekend each summer, is another—after appearing in 2013, David Byrne returned to Des Moines often enough to become an honorary resident, and he’s blogged regularly about our bike paths, the Social Club, and how, in his words, Des Moines is a “hugely encouraging” example for arts and music communities nationwide.  Downtown’s population has gone from under 1000 twenty years ago to over 15,000, and the city, which has always made top ten lists for young families and retirees, now regularly sees itself being named one of the best cities for starting a career, for job opportunities per capita, for foodies, for LGBT-friendliness, for farmer’s markets, for general quality of life, and even for urban millennials:  “Do the Most Hipster Thing Possible,” advised The National Journal three years ago. “Move to Des Moines.”[i]


HABS Barnhard Farm


Iowa’s founding citizens built generations of serviceable but unpretentious structures during the state’s first decades.  “Putting on airs” has always seemed decadent and coastal, and farming does not often produce the capital required to build ornate palaces.  But among Iowa’s early carpenter’s gothic houses, commercial storefronts, barns, and monuments, the State Capitol, built in 1871-1874 to designs by Chicago architects John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard, was a work of gilded excess that stamped Des Moines and Iowa with a sumptuous statement of political and cultural ambition; Piquenard asserted that the design was influenced by then-new wings for Paris’ Louvre Palace.


State Capitol, Des Moines, IA.  
John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard, 1871-1874. [Library of Congress]

The Capitol was the first of many fine Beaux-Arts buildings throughout the state; the firm of Proudfoot and Bird designed high schools, government buildings, banks, and University buildings that imprinted Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City, and other towns throughout Iowa with monuments that marked the importance of civic engagement and education.  These structures were erected alongside Iowa’s vernacular buildings, which relied on local materials, especially timber and a characteristic yellow sandstone, to produce more modest structures invested with care, attention to detail, efficient planning, and budgeted ornament.  While the Arts and Crafts “style” was endemic to California and Boston, actual craftsman houses were native to Iowa and to other states throughout the Midwest.  “American Four-” and “Six-square” homes still make up much of our historic town centers.


Woodbury County Courthouse, Des Moines, IA.  
Purcell and Elmslie, 1916-18. [HABS/HAER]

These two traditions, of Beaux-Arts monuments and restrained craftsman houses, were reflected in our 20th century architecture, which balanced tradition with progressive ideals.  In a region rooted in building crafts but with grand civic aspirations that inspired Proudfoot and Bird’s work, it is not surprising that the President of small merchant bank in Grinnell would have thought to call on Louis Sullivan, for instance, in 1914, resulting in a church-like building there that would prove to be one of Sullivan’s final and most detailed works.  Or that a developer in Mason City, a small though well-off town in northern Iowa, would hire Walter Burley Griffin to design houses for plots on a wooded site at the town’s edge, creating the largest collection of Prairie School houses in the country.  Iowa never embraced Frank Lloyd Wright’s bombast and heroics—he built just a handful of buildings here.  But houses influenced by Wright can be found throughout the state, and our greatest Prairie School monument, the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, designed by Purcell and Elmslie and completed in 1918 is a tribute to his style.


Des Moines Art Center
Eliel and Eero Saarinen (1949), I. M. Pei (1968), Richard Meier (1985). [DMAC]

The postwar era redefined Iowa’s approach to architectural design, and one complex in particular put Des Moines on the map and ushered in several decades of true Prairie modernism.  In 1946 the city was left substantial funds by local banker J.D. Edmundson for a new arts complex placed well outside the then-industrial downtown.  The city selected Greenwood Park, and hired Eliel Saarinen as the architect for what would become the Des Moines Art Center.  This building was not called a “Museum,” nor did Saarinen attempt to design a monument.  The Art Center instead adopted a rambling, S-shaped plan, aligned with the park’s terrain and enveloping an axial rose garden; Saarinen’s plan gestured toward the city and to Grand Avenue not with grand steps, but rather with a one-story “education wing” containing public classrooms and studios.  “Here is a building to be made use of,” the Museum’s opening announcement stated, while others noted that it was far from the “Sunday afternoon show place” that had characterized American museum design.[ii]  Clad in regional limestone that matched the city’s commercial and residential architecture, the Art Center was praised as “the finest designed small museum in the country” by Andrew Ritchie, director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.  It set a high bar for the architectural and cultural communities in Des Moines over the next decades.[iii]


Oreon Scott Chapel, Drake University
Eero Saarinen, 1955.  [substance architecture]

The Art Center itself saw a bold expansion by I. M. Pei in 1968 (and a less successful one by Richard Meier in 1984), creating an enclosed courtyard for the Carl Milles sculpture, “Pegasus and Bellerophon,” and framing the rose garden’s axis with a sculptural ‘vessel’ that remains one of Pei’s most compelling and underrated works.  Eliel and Eero Saarinen built a long, productive relationship with Drake University, designing two classroom buildings, a dormitory complex, and a dining hall in the 1940s; after Eliel’s death in 1950 Eero continued to work at Drake, designing the Theology School in 1952.  This project included the Oreon Scott Chapel, an intimate cylindrical sanctuary for ecumenical services that was contemporary with Saarinen’s larger chapel design for MIT.  Scott Chapel is much smaller, and it eschews the Cambridge project’s liturgical axis for a straightforward central plan focused on a toplit travertine altar—a stunning, resonant space that is enriched by a complex, seven-sided timber structure supporting its iconic oculus above.


Federal Home Loan and Savings
Mies van der Rohe,1962; 
renovation, Dirk Lohan/BNIM/Harboe Architects, 2018. [Library of Congress]

Other national figures working in Iowa included Mies van der Rohe, whose Home Federal Savings and Loan Building downtown is a distillation of his skyscraper principles into a humanely scaled, three-story structure that offers generous pedestrian space along with its uncompromising tectonics.  Mies’ office also designed Meredith Hall, a classroom building that emphasized Drake’s commitment to architecture.  Harry Weese contributed dormitories and classroom buildings to the campus in the 1960s and 1970s.  Gordon Bunshaft’s iconic American Republic Insurance Building exemplified SOM’s reputation for honed structural expression when it was completed in 1965—a six story, post-tensioned concrete “file cabinet” filled with comfortable office space and an impressive corporate art collection.  American Republic is the only structure to have won an AIA honor award twice—when it opened in 1967, and last year, for BNIM’s sensitive renovation.  Iowa City has built campus buildings by Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and Cesar Pelli.

kum n go

Kum’N’Go Headquarters
Renzo Piano Building Workshop/OPN Architects, 2018. [RPBW]

More recently, Des Moines’ Western Gateway Park, which we’re now in, was masterplanned by Agrest and Gandelsonas and has become an outdoor museum for sculpture and architecture; it includes the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and David Chipperfield’s Public Library, and it will soon see Renzo Piano’s new corporate headquarters for the iconic Iowa convenience store chain Kum’n’Go.


C.Y. Stephens Auditorium, Iowa State University
Ray Crites/Brooks, Borg, & Skiles, 1968. [Iowa State Center]

These nationally-recognized monuments have been paralleled by a local design culture that has developed a consistent regional approach as well as strong individual voices.  Two leading figures in our architectural history who deserve more attention in the 20th century canon—Ray Crites and Charles Herbert—were inspired by global movements to produce locally inflected interpretations of Case Study modernism and heroic Brutalism that grace our landscapes, cities, and college campuses.  Crites expanded on his modest residential practice to design C.Y. Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State in the late 1960s, a building that spoke to the University’s desire to grow beyond its agricultural origins into a cultural center for the state.  The result, a 3,000 seat venue with near-perfect, hand-calculated acoustics and a diagrammatic plan and section expressed in an iconic flying roof, was named Iowa’s “Building of the Century” in 2004, beating out Sullivan, Wright, Mies, and others to honor a structure unknown outside the state.  Herbert’s work includes the monumental Des Moines Civic Center, a piece of lush concrete minimalism that forms the backdrop to Nollen Plaza’s urban stage.  In the 1990s Herbert’s firm was rebranded as HLKB, which designed the Meredith Corporation Headquarters in 2000—a literal gateway to downtown from the west—and the Pappajohn Center that we’re in now.  HLKB won AIA Firm of the Year in 2001, and its alumni have gone on to form substance, which for the last ten years has led Des Moines’ architectural resurgence.  Substance’s café and pump station, at the intersection of the Court Avenue district and the Des Moines River, have won awards for massaging two very different programs into an eastern downtown gateway, welcoming automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic while integrating heavy-duty flood control pumps and urban art by Jun Kaneko.  The hub connects to the Principal Riverwalk, a 1.2-mile promenade completed in 2013 that links to Iowa’s 2,000 miles of hiking and cycling trails.  Other firms have also produced thoughtful, integrative work here.  BNIM, whose Des Moines office is run by tomorrow’s keynote speaker Rod Kruse, has produced elegant and functional buildings for the state’s Utilities Board and Iowa State, among others, while winning AIA Firm of the Year in 2011.  Iowa City-based Neuman Monson has transformed that city’s downtown with new residential and commercial towers that have added crisp glass prisms to what can now be called Iowa City’s skyline.

pump station

Principal Riverwalk Pavilion and Pump Station,
substance architecture, 2013 [substance]

These projects all combine civic aspirations with thoughtful, nuanced solutions and a concern for building craft.  They focus on experiential depth rather than attention-grabbing visuals, and they exemplify this region’s traditions of modest, diligent, but nevertheless inspired and engaging design.  There’s a willingness throughout to let function, construction, materials, and space speak for themselves—plainly but elegantly—and to see what can be coaxed from these basic design elements.  That the results are often engaging, and that Iowa has developed a genuine appreciation for good architecture and urban design, suggests that there is an underlying philosophy here that is worth examining.


[i] The Atlantic, Oct. 16, 2014.  Online at:

[ii] Print ad, The Des Moines Register, June 1, 1948, and Print Ad, Des Moines Register, May 30, 1948, n.p. 6. “. . . the word museum is avoided . . .” “Art Center,” Architectural Forum, July 1949, 66-

[iii] “Praises Design at Art Center.” Undated, unsourced clipping. Scrapbook in box marked “1940-1950,” Archives of the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa.


flyover manifesto II–pragmatism, givenness, and beauty

[Continued from Part I]

iowa vernacular

Iowa’s vernacular architecture [HABS/HAER]

Lessons From Iowa—The Manifesto

What underlies this approach to design?  And what can we, as educators, building scientists, designers, and builders learn from this tradition?  To conclude, I want to talk about three ideas that I think describe Iowa’s relationship to our place, our way of building, and our outlook.  These are unfashionable ideas today—‘flyover’ philosophy to be sure—but I want to argue that, taken together, they offer a productive stance from which we might consider the relationships between thought and action, the ideals of usefulness and engagement that I think define this Society’s mission, and the rifts and controversies in our discipline that reflect dire issues in the rest of the world.  Pragmatism defines our baseline approach of focusing on the ‘real’ and the tangible.  Givenness suggests that we appreciate those quotidian aspects in a new light.  And, finally, Beauty is a realm that we have ceded to others too easily; it may be, instead, the term that describes what building scientists, engineers, crafters, and technologists do best—bringing hard facts together with our human capacity for curiosity, fascination and reverence.


Pragmatism has made a modest comeback in philosophy and design over the last generation, but it’s a founding tenet of Midwestern culture—that the meaning of a thing or proposition lies in its real world consequences, or what William James mischievously called its “cash value.”  Iowans share an allergy toward metaphysics, agreeing with the pragmatists’ maxim that any question divorced from our relationship to the world is meaningless.  Real questions, theories, or strategies are “instruments” for investigating and leveraging our relationship with that world, and common sense in the term’s philosophical meaning—that is, the shared, tacit agreement on what is more or less ‘real’ is reliable enough as a foundation for our work and relationships.  Hewing close to the world of things and consequences must have been a natural instinct for settlers, given the constraints and thin margins of farming here.  That disciplined familiarity and negotiation with the physical world is still the stated mission of the Midwest’s agricultural fairs and its land grant universities—Iowa State’s motto, “Science with Practice,” suggests both its roots in real-world farming and its continuing emphasis on application.

As designers, Pragmatism means acknowledging needs and constraints, and searching for the most effective purchase that our resources can have on our desire to re-shape our world.  This work to understand and to relate to the world has to involve a collective effort.  Our relationships and conversations with one another are critical to comprehension, to defining for ourselves what is true-enough, and to finding effective, ethical, and beneficial strategies for interacting with or altering our world.  Architecture, in this sense, must be a discipline of constant experimentation, collaboration, and tentative footholds of knowledge in an evolving realm of values, desires, and resources.  In our experimental cycles of making changes to our environment, assessing their results, and imagining ways to improve our efforts, we learn both the world and our abilities, and we develop knowledge and technology that is reliable and effective.  Neither theory nor praxis alone are enough—rather, they have to be integrated into a constant cycle of making and observing, and tempered with both skepticism and ingenuity, traits that would have served Iowa’s settlers well.

Put simply, Iowans have a well-deserved and teachable skill for detecting and calling bullshit.  I don’t use this word lightly, but rather in the sense that Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt used it in his thin but important 2005 book in which he defined the term not as the conscious attempt to deceive about facts, but rather as the attempt to deceive about the speaker—to deceive not about ‘correctness’ but about ‘sincerity.’  It is, surely, unnecessary to point out this idea’s resonance today.  Instead, I want to argue that this group, interested as we are in the establishment of useful knowledge, might regard our mission as the design world’s skeptical, innovative Iowa farmers, alert to self-serving bouts of those, in Frankfurt’s terms, “trying to get away with something,” or to convince of their sincerity instead of the reliability of what they’ve produced.[i]  As building technologists and scientists our intellectual capital is the fact, or piece of knowledge that is testable, falsifiable, and that best describes how an element or quality of the physical world works, or how we can relate ourselves or our constructions to it.  We should be champions of this knowledge and its importance, and we should be vocal skeptics of ‘alternative facts’ and specious theorizing, which both come from the same preference for easy self-interest over the difficult task of negotiating our way in the world.  This is vital as issues like renewable energy, climate change, and carbon emissions are held hostage to self-serving political and financial agendas, and presented with this concern for sincerity over facticity.


Set against this objective, ‘cash-value’ emphasis, givenness is a term used by the Iowa writer Marilynne Robinson to suggest how tentative our footholds on this knowledge can be, and to describe the gratitude we should feel for even this glancing level of consciousness and understanding.  Robinson is one of our state’s great literary heroes, a novelist of international stature, an essayist on the difficulties facing democracy in the 21st century, and a theologian of uncompromising insightHer dialogues with President Obama in the New York Review of Books last year focused on the fragility of our civic discourse and the frustrations of unfulfilled national promise, but they also covered issues of religion and ethics, and they showed a president enthralled by a conversation with one of his favorite authors.

For Robinson, the gift of both a universe and a conscious ability to understand it should inspire more humility and reflection than it does.  Substituting ‘tentative apprehension,’ for true certainty, and the notion that the “inexhaustible ordinary” should inspire “wonder” provides sure, common footing not only for writers, but also for artists, designers, and engineers.  That we are equipped to not only grapple physically with this ordinary, but also to extract from it sustenance and meaning, is for Robinson a profound gift, one that we take for granted and that suffers under our species’ limitless appetites, but also one that merits continuous acknowledgement and appreciation.  In this, she finds common ground with a long tradition of American philosophy and science, noting that writers from Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens to Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James all expressed astonishment at the fact that the universe is as intelligible as it is at every scale, that our knowledge of it seems to grow exponentially, and that what we have yet to discover seems boundless.[ii] One does not have to share Robinson’s religious views to find this acknowledgement of our understanding’s limits, and pleasure at those limits’ continuous expansion, to be profound, or to find in them inspiration for our work as explorers and curators of the interface between the physical world and our consciousness of it.  But one does, perhaps, have to share some sense of her enlightenment, her thoughtfulness, to commit to finding meaning within this gifted ordinary instead of searching beyond it. “There is no art or discipline for which the nature of reality is a matter of indifference,” is one of her working theses, and I propose that it might well also serve as ours.[iii]

Robinson finds a strong alliance with physics, which seems more and more comfortable expressing reverence and awe at what it discovers—“The Universe,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson notes, “is under no obligation to make sense to you.”  Physics and religion, in Robinson’s words, both “explore and enact wonder and wondering.”  But she finds other scientific fields hubristic and grudging.  Cognitive science comes in for her withering critique.  In neuroscience’s emphasis on the brain’s physical structures and chemical processes, she finds “a straightforward instance of scientists taking as the whole of reality that part of it their methods can report.”[iv]  I think there is a parallel here with our fields’ fascination with optimization, tools, and data—that we risk seeing methods as ends in themselves, rather than as means to the ultimate goals of improving our relations with a complex world.  And just as we should be champions of applicable, critically reviewed facticity, we should also acknowledge the borders of that knowledge and appreciate the need to revel, when appropriate, in the limitations of science or technology to account for the fullness of human experience or our seemingly infinite curiosity and capacity for awe.


Can we reconcile these two very Midwestern poles of pragmatism and wonder?  Can we remain grounded in the facts before us while aspiring to larger questions of meaning?  Can we recognize our knowledge’s potential as well as the ineffable character of our most profound spaces and buildings?  Are we, in other words, technologists, designers, educators, the ones to forge links between pragmatics and poetics?  I’m going to propose that beauty is this meeting ground between the quotidian and the marvelous, and that as builders and teachers of architecture’s everyday, we have a particular stake in reclaiming the term and arguing for our work not only from the point of view of efficiency or performance, but also from that of architectural poetics, seen not in the perjorative sense of “merely” visual pleasure, but in the sense of embodying and communicating value and meaning in the experience of our designs.

Functional explanations of the emotional response that makes us refer to something as ‘beautiful’ abound.  Philosopher Denis Dutton suggested that beauty is “nature’s way of acting at a distance,” giving us an ingrained shortcut that makes us prefer visual signals of evolutionarily or environmentally beneficence—a wide open savanna, for instance, with a few trees and large swaths of grass promises both shelter and nourishment.  This evolutionary theory suggests that elements of classical visual beauty—clarity and distinctiveness of an object’s defining characteristics, pattern-based grouping or composition, contrast and symmetry—can also be explained as shortcuts that allow our minds to decide more quickly on value or threat.  Such a reductivist argument is the sort of know-it-all hubris that Robinson criticizes.  And yet she, too has come to a similar theory of beauty as a hidden depth or complexity in the mundane.  “Beauty” for her is a “strategy of emphasis,” a way to refine, clarify and make universal themes resonate in small moments or details.  Whether in nature or in the human realm, we take great pleasure in “things done well,” whether through consciousness or evolution, where details offer footholds toward comprehending greater complexity, and where elements are arranged, organized, and punctuated to grant us clear understanding and appreciation.

For philosopher Daniel Dennett, science’s constant ‘demystification’ is beauty’s source, not its corruptor:

“Looking on the bright side, let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the wake of earlier demystifications. We find no diminution of wonder; on the contrary, we find deeper beauties and more dazzling visions of the complexity of the universe than the protectors of mystery ever conceived…”[v]

And Robinson seems to agree with this—science, after all, in its most enlightened moments offers us glimpses of just how rich the world we’ve been thrown into can be, and how sustaining and even nurturing.  “The mystery that compels science and the mystery that elevates religion seem very like one another,” she writes.  “In both cases the beauty of Being is acknowledged…”[vi]

science beauty quotes.001

Beauty has been a common concern of artists and scientists alike—from Augustine’s distinction between delight of the senses, which entertains us, and delight through the senses, which makes us wiser; through the Enlightenment notion of beauty as the revelation of the Universe’s laws; to today, when physicists talk about theories so beautiful that they must be true, there is a common theme that should resonate with us: beauty is not merely pleasurable, it is instead, the craftsman’s or designer’s distillation and intentional clarity that reveals, explains, and celebrates the inexhaustible ordinary.  Beauty, in this reading, is not so much Keats’ “splendor of truth,” but more the “pleasure of knowledge.”  This, I think, is a definition amenable to poets and neuroscientists alike.

So where does this leave us—humble building technologists, unacquainted in our daily work with the mysteries of religion or cosmology?  I think that we are, in fact, precisely poised at the tip of beauty’s knife edge, dealing as we do with building’s quantifiable performances and efficiencies and with their often-profound experiential impact.  Architects and designers constantly perform this dual citizenship, in the ‘hard’ knowledge of materials, systems, mathematics and economics, and in the ineffable, inexplicable satisfactions of perception, emotion, and spirit. Works by Kahn, Scarpa, Piano, or Zumthor, for example, connect these two realms of knowledge and pleasure, facts and spirit, and they do so in a way that leaves us appreciating the congruence between understanding and experience.  This is a gift of comprehension that arises from the simple competences of putting a building together, making “appearance accord with reality,” in the words of Viollet-le-Duc.[vii]  This effort to connect is a prescription for neither putting on airs nor concealing the difficult mechanisms that make a building stand or perform.  The former is, literally, sensational, the latter dissembling.  We may be entertained by the spectacular, but we are satisfied by that which reveals something about itself, or our world, and that in doing so makes us that much wiser.  What elevates the pragmatic into the poetic is, in these writers’ and architects’ thinking, the clear revelation of the real as simple, beneficial, and given.  For us as designers or builders this requires a fluency in building’s realities, a Midwestern familiarity with the resistant stuff that’s offered by the world and with the human necessities we have to house and shelter.  But it also requires an eye toward the richness that lies within those realities and an appreciation for the deep possibilities of human understanding and experience that they can provoke.

In the coming days we’ll listen to, question, discuss, and absorb papers from all across this spectrum, and I’ll suggest that we take it upon ourselves to seek out ways to connect the pragmatists’ hard data with Robinson’s broader spiritual interests, that we as technologists not shrink from the idea of the beautiful, but rather see it as our home turf; to see commodity, firmness, and delight not as three poles of our discipline, but rather as patterns in a woven fabric of science, practice, and beauty, in which these themes are inextricably, at their best even joyfully linked.  Integrating pragmatics and poetics has always been part of Iowa’s history and culture, and it has always been latent in architecture and engineering’s best works.

I’ll close with a line by Des Moines native Bill Bryson, who summarized these themes in his moving, funny, and very Iowan book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

“we are awfully lucky to be here…to attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better.”[viii]

[i] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[ii] Robinson, 24, 82.

[iii] Robinson, 5.

[iv] Robinson, 7.

[v] Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little & Co., 1991).  22, 25.

[vi] Robinson, Marilynne. The Givenness of Things: Essays (p. 152). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[vii] This construction is borrowed from Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back Again.

[viii] Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything.  (New York: Broadway, 2003).

btes 2017

DMAC 01That was the view from the final evening of BTES 2017, the biannual meeting of the Building Technology Educators’ Society.  Des Moines hosted it, the first time it’s been in ‘flyover country,’ and I enjoyed the chance to co-chair it with rock star colleagues Rob Whitehead and Shelby Doyle.  Over 70 faculty and students trekked to Iowa, and we heard papers ranging from studio and design-build pedagogy to solar analysis of historic buildings and more speculative thoughts on how Poetics and Pragmatism, the themes of the conference, relate to one another.

BNIM Des Moines principal Rod Kruse and ARUP principal Fiona Cousins both gave excellent keynotes on their practices and how they relate to these ideas, and I was honored to join them to give the introductory keynote.  Given the theme, and the fact that we had a large group who had, in the usual way, either just flown over or driven through my adopted state, I thought it was worth giving a bit of an overview of the state’s history and architecture, but also to probe a bit more deeply into what it means to work here, and how the unique history of the place has given us both traditions and writers who offer provocative perspectives on how the physical world and our lives within it interact.  This isn’t the sort of thing that has a natural outlet for publication, so for the record (and since I’ve been working on it for the last month instead of posting…), I thought it would go nicely on architecturefarm.  It follows in two parts [here and here] in the next two posts.