Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Retrofitting Suburbia

Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the architecture program at Georgia Tech, has done quite a bit of research on retrofitting suburbia. In her new book - Retrofitting Suburbia - written with co-author June Williamson, solutions for revitalizing "under-performing" sprawl spaces are explored and documented.

Click here to view a fascinating TED talk by Dunham-Jones on reclaiming the suburbs.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

A New Evangelical Environmentalism?

I came across an interesting blog post this morning (prompted by a story on NPR) by Dr. Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It's a bit of a mea culpa on the evangelical movement's history of hostility toward the environmental movement.

It has always confounded me that religious leaders, especially southern evangelicals, have enthusiastically adopted the amoral (and in many cases immoral) political and cultural positions of free-market corporate interests and the politicians who shill for them.

A little background: As a child, my parents - both staunch Southern Baptists - shuttled our family to church at least 3 times a week. It was a ritual. We were prompt for Sunday School at 9:45 followed by church at 11, plus Sunday night services and Wednesday night Prayer Meeting. Sometimes, we met on Thursday night as well. Consequently, I became quite a student of the Bible.

I was a curious child. When I was in my early teens, I procured a Greek New Testament; as a closer link to the original text, I figured the translation would be more accurate than the standard King James Version we were required to own and read. My earnestness led me to seek out and focus on the teachings of Jesus since, in Sunday School we had learned that Jesus often corrected misguide disciples - the guys who allegedly authored most of the New Testament - when they offered their misunderstanding of his teachings.

Ironically, that practice is exactly what led me to move away from the Baptist Church as I found a disconnect between many of the teachings of Jesus and the political positions of the church. (That and the fact that, when I served as choir director in a splinter church at the age of 17, the deacons asked me to leave because the music was getting "a little to fast and a little to loud." Another ironic turn of events as today's rock-and-roll praise bands, in comparison, make my efforts to liven up Calvinist hymns seem extraordinarily tame. But that's another story.)

For example, according to the New Testament, Jesus imparted such wisdom as 1) don't attack your enemies, love them, 2) give money to the poor, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, 3) don't judge people, 4) associate with people society frowns upon, and 5) don't covet wealth or turn the church into a business. Sounds a little to the left of Dennis Kucinich, doesn't it? Could you imagine any presidential candidate that ran on this platform getting any significant votes from the evangelical community? Hardly. In fact, evangelical Christians would most likely be the first to crucify - politically speaking - any candidate for public office who campaigned on these very issues.

And in terms of environmental awareness and stewardship, evangelical Christians have been almost uniformly hostile, increasingly so over the past couple of decades. More than one person has suggested that evangelical philosophy is this: "Jesus is coming soon to rapture the saved, so why take care of the environment since we won't be here to witness the devastation?" I don't really believe many evangelicals take this callous position. I think it's more the case that evangelicals adopted the worldview of free market secular forces who agreed with them on a small handful of hot-button political issues such as abortion. Over time, many evangelicals co-opted the inhumane social and environmental positions of so-called market conservatives they otherwise would have nothing in common with.

Cultural conservatives and religion were not always such cozy bedfellows. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, most religious leaders leaned more to the liberal side of the aisle, using biblical texts to underpin their political positions. In my opinion, this country (and the world) has suffered greatly because of organized religion's radical right shift away from many of the basic humanitarian principles laid out by the very guy - Jesus Christ - they named the religion after, and the religions establishment hasn't done itself any favors.

There's an evangelical bumper sticker that's been around for some time now: "Love the sinner, Hate the sin." I think when it comes to many evangelical Christians, the slogan might as well be, "Love the messenger, Hate the message."

So it comes as a refreshing turn that Dr. Moore is openly addressing this disconnect. A few excerpts:

"Every human culture is formed in a tie with the natural environment. In my hometown, that’s the father passing down his shrimping boat to his son or the community gathering for the Blessing of the Fleet at the harbor every year. In a Midwestern town, it might be the apple festival. In a New England town, it might be the traditions of whalers or oystermen. The West is defined by the frontier and the mountains. And so on.

When the natural environment is used up, unsustainable for future generations, cultures die. When Gulfs are dead, when mountaintops are removed, when forests are razed with nothing left in their place, when deer populations disappear, cultures die too.

And what’s left in the place of these cultures and traditions is an individualism that is defined simply by the appetites for sex, violence, and piling up stuff."

Sounds almost like a public service announcement from the Sierra Club, doesn't it? Check out Dr. Russell Moore's complete post on his blog - Moore to the Point - here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Walkable Neighborhood Interview

Thursday morning, as a part of Mississippi Public Broadcasting's week-long "Battle of the Bulge" series, I was interviewed on the topic of how walkable neighborhoods facilitate better health. (Or, if you will, how the lack of walkable neighborhoods contribute to the problem of obesity.)

Click here for a link to the interview.

If you wish to help bring about a walkable environment in your city, town, or neighborhood, here is a comprehensive series of links to walkable neighborhood resources from


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Battle of the Bulge

Mississippi is home to the most obese people in the world. That's right. The fattest people in the world, on average, reside within the state lines of this small (3 million people) southern state.

I'm not bringing up the point to slam Mississippi. I was born in Mississippi. I grew up in Mississippi. Although I've lived other places, I'm here now and have spent the majority of my life living in Mississippi. So it's like family; I can talk about the "unmentionables."

Why is Mississippi so fat?

Sure there's the fried food, the fast food, and the proliferation of packaged foods available in the Wal-Marts dotting every little small town in the state. There's also the low level of education - Mississippi perennially grades lowest in the nation on any number of education statistics - which comes into play as the general population is less likely to have the honed critical thinking skills necessary for making the connection between diet and exercise and good physical health.

But there's another issue, seldom discussed when it comes to obesity, that contributes to obesity: the lack of walkable communities. When I moved back to Mississippi from Washington, DC, a very walkable city, I instantly gained 20 pounds. In Mississippi, as in most of America, the older walkable neighborhoods have been replaced by sprawling suburbs with no sidewalks and nowhere to walk to.

I believe our national obesity problem can, in part, be traced to the way we've designed automobile-only neighborhoods that are hostile to walking and bicycling.

This week, Mississippi Public Radio is featuring a series called "Battle of the Bulge" with helpful information about staying healthy, fit, and thinner. Check it out.

And here's a link to "Fat People Dont' Walk - a recent article I wrote on the relationship between obesity and non-walkable neighborhoods.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Traditional Air Conditioner

Design and Drawing by James Ray Polk, Architect

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American)

In spring, thoughts turn to love. In summer – even for hopeless romantics - thoughts turn to air conditioning.

Nowadays, we Americans have all become accustomed to the expectation that every building must be equipped with air conditioning to mitigate the summer heat. Air conditioning is as ubiquitous as walls, roof, and floor in any modern home. Who could live without it? I’ll tell you who: our ancestors.

Now when I say ancestors, I’m not referring to Ice Age cave painters, I’m talking about our immediate predecessors. The first modern electric air conditioner was invented by Willis Haviland Carrier in 1902, barely over a century ago, and air conditioners did not become “standard equipment” in homes until after World War II.

That means, most likely, everybody reading this article had parents, grandparents, or great grandparents who lived much of their lives in non-air conditioned houses. How did they do it?

In short, houses were built to “be” air conditioners.

You’ve probably noticed that older homes have tall ceilings. Far from being a statement of high style, those ceilings had a purpose. They helped cool a home in the summer by taking advantage of a basic law of physics called convection. Hot air rises and cool air sinks, thus those high ceilings took into consideration the proportions of our human frame distributing the hottest air in the house to the empty space above the heads of its inhabitants.

Look closer at that vintage home and you’ll see transoms above the interior doorways. Again, the origin of this detail had nothing to do with aesthetics. Open the transoms in the summer months and hot air migrated from room to room until it escaped through a high vent. (The most elaborate vents took the form of ornate hat-shaped roof embellishments called cupolas.) And as hot air escaped, the home naturally balanced the air pressure within by drawing cooler air through large low windows under shaded porches.

Presto! - natural air conditioning.

Can we still do this today? Of course! It’s a simple matter of design. It may be a lost art, but consider this: any run-of-the-mill builder a century ago knew how to build a home that conditioned itself. It’s not rocket science. Although our reconstituted sensitivities to summer heat may require that electric air conditioning be utilized in the hottest parts of summer, especially at midday, a modern-day home can be cooled using this principle.

So if you’re planning to build a new home or renovate an existing one, think about the air flow. Use porches or landscaping to shade windows, install operable transoms, and allow the air to escape through a ceiling vent. For added comfort, add a few ceiling fans to keep the air moving.

You may not want to give up your central air, but with a little forethought, you can bring down the temperature and your summer electric bill – naturally.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright Week (part 6)

As much as I'd like to continue this series on the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, it's time to turn the page and start another chapter.

I'll wrap it up with a very cool "Taliesin Timeline" designed by former Taliesin apprentice Val M. Cox. This piece was conceived by Susan Lockhart, a senior apprentice who grew up in a Wright designed usonian house, spent a considerable portion of her adult life at Taliesin, and contributed mightily over many decades to the cause of organic architecture, and Gerald Morosco, apprentice, former CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and a wonderful architect in his own right practicing in Pittsburgh, PA.

The credit page reads:

For the first time in the community's history, a presentation to acknowledge all who have lived and/or worked at Taliesin. As a result, information included in this installation now stands as a permanent record of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, available for access and enrichment for generations to come.

This timeline documents the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin Architects by year and the individuals involved in various aspects of work and life at Taliesin over the past eight decades. A wealth of creative talent passed through this organic Mecca including Fay Jones, John Lautner, Kevin Lynch, and Paolo Soleri sending organic ripples throughout the world. If you look closely enough, you might even find the writer of this blog in the decade of the 2000's.

Click on the links below to view the timeline decade by decade. Explore the richness of this country's organic architecture (modern-day translation: "green architecture") with this extraordinary Taliesin Timeline.

Timeline Credits









Entire Timeline

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright Week (part 5)

The Price Tower gave me my first proper introduction to practical - and magical - geometry. Although this structure is not one I'd call "pretty," it is one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever witnessed. It simply comes alive.

When I visited the newly remodeled Price Tower Arts Center a couple of years ago, I couldn't get enough of it. While my wife and her high school classmate (and amazing PTAC exhibition curator) Scott Perkins chatted over drinks in the 15th floor Copper Bar, I spent a couple of hours scaling the building several times on the 30/60/120 degree exterior stairwell. It was visceral! I could touch the pressed patina-green copper exterior. And the views! Wow - Bartlesville! Other than the aliveness of it all, I hardly noticed the cold swirling January winds.

I've also linked a couple of posts to what I call Price Tower's "Baby Daddy." Frank Lloyd Wright designed a progenitor of the Price Tower in the 1920's for St. Marks in the Bowery in New York. The proposed design would have manifested a series of apartment towers around the church as income producers. Alas, they were never constructed. But as a trial run for Mr. Wrights skyscraper opus, they proved immensely valuable.

In addition to the Art Center, the newly renovated tower offers hotel accommodations. This is a can't miss for Wright fans. Plan a trip to the Inn at Price Tower for an experience you won't soon forget.


Price Tower (part 1)
Price Tower (part 2) details
St. Marks in the Bowery (part 1)
St. Marks in the Bowery (part 2)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright Week (part 4)

I've wanted to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Greek Orthodox Church for a long, long time, and last summer I finally made the trek to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin for a walk-around. In most photographs - to me - it looks more like a painting of building than an actual building. Design and built in the mid-1950's, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was one of a spate of church commissions that came to Mr. Wright on the heels of his highly acclaimed and widely published Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin. This phase of Frank Lloyd Wright's career - when he was in his 80's - proved to be his most prolific.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church

The Guggenheim Museum occupied much of Mr. Wright's later years. Providentially, Solomon Guggenheim's assistant (and modern art enthusiast) Hilla Rebay suggested to her art-collecting boss that he hire Frank Lloyd Wright to design a museum for his collection after a book literally feel on her head opening to Wright's photograph. That was the mid-40's; Frank Lloyd Wright would work on the design in fits and starts for the next decade and a half. Turns out, Hilla Rebay was the critical ingredient in bringing this design into reality. She was the reason Solomon Guggenheim collected modern art, and she continually rekindled Guggenheim's on-again off-again attitude about whether or not to build the museum. A few pics:

New York Guggenheim Museum

And, for kicks, here are a few photos of the Riverview Terrace Restaurant perched over the Wisconsin River right around the corner from Taliesin. It was one of the last burst of designs he shook out of his sleeve shortly before he died in the spring of 1959.

Riverview Terrace Restaurant (part 1)
Riverview Terrace Restaurant (part 2)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright Week (part 3)

Frank Lloyd Wright's largest collection of buildings is in, of all places, south Florida. Credit visionary president Dr. Ludd Spivey who, while the country was still mired in the Great Depression, contacted Mr. Wright "concerning plans for great education temple in Florida."

Thirteen built structures in all, including a connecting esplanade, the Florida Southern campus stands as a testament to the principles of organic architecture Mr. Wright articulated.

Special Note: When viewing Frank Lloyd Wright's work, try putting yourself in the environment where the building was constructed. One of the basic principles of organic architecture is that it belongs where it is on the earth and nowhere else. That's why Mr. Wright's Arizona buildings look and feel different from his Chicago buildings that have a distinctively different character than his Florida buildings and so on. One cannot separate the design solution from the context. Specifically, in this series, imagine that you're in humid 95 degree heat with the bright sun beating down. Now, doesn't the esplanade make sense?


Florida Southern Campus (part 1)
Florida Southern Campus (part 2)
Florida Southern Campus (part 3)
Florida Southern Campus (part 4)
Florida Southern Campus (part 5)
Florida Southern Campus (part 6)
Florida Southern Campus (part 7)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright Week (part 2)

One of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings is the Society Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin.

The drawing above is a sketch I did while sitting on the church lawn sometime in 2001. Follow the links for a two-part photo essay.

Unitarian Meeting House (part 1)
Unitarian Meeting House (part 2)

And as a bonus, click here to see Frank Lloyd Wright's only built gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota. This building sprang out of Mr. Wright's ideas for Broadacre City.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright Week (part 1)

Yesterday, on Frank Lloyd Wright's 143rd birthday, I sent out a reprise of my original post on the man I introduce as "America's first green Architect." Of course, as Mr. Wright admitted (at least on one occasion in the Mike Wallace interview), some phrases are thrown out there for calculated effect. Of course, before the industrial revolution, everyone practiced green design and construction - out of necessity. Build without taking the climate and landforms into consideration and you were doomed with Darwinian consequences.

This week I'll be posting links to photo essays of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Why not start out with Mr. Wright's Wisconsin home - Taliesin.

Taliesin (part 1)

Taliesin (part 2)

Romeo and Juliet Windmill (act 1)

Romeo and Juliet Windmill (act 2)

Romeo and Juliet Windmill (act 3)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Up in the Air

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

As oil from BP’s deep sea well continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico, the debate on the future of energy has shifted. “Drill, baby, drill” just lost its mojo.

With just one accident, the downside risk of fossil-fuel dependence is coming into full view, and if ever there’s an example of how ‘all things are connected,’ this is it. As if a free-flow of crude oil and gas spewing into a natural aquatic habitat isn’t bad enough, the unintended consequences are just beginning to play out. Gulf fishermen are seeing their livelihoods vanish as sheens of oil invade the fertile estuaries of the Mississippi River Delta; the tourist industry in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida is taking it on the chin as would-be visitors steer clear of Gulf beaches; and a quarter of America’s homegrown seafood source has been placed in jeopardy.

The smoke is beginning to clear inside the crystal ball and one thing is coming into focus: Our energy future is not with fossil fuels.

Rather, the future of energy production on this planet is up in the air – literally – with solar and wind. On the surface, it’s obvious. Why drill more dirty holes in the earth to extract finite resources when an infinite supply of clean energy is right above our heads? The transition will take some time, but not as long as some would lead you to believe; when the costs of real and potential accidents like the Deepwater Horizon spill are added into the equation, wind and solar may already be a better deal.

But for now, what do we do about the damage - economic and environmental – caused by the Gulf oil spill? How are we, as a society, going to mitigate the damage and insure that future accidents are prevented when possible, and quickly remediated when necessary?

I'd love to see a modern-day CCC program funded by a fossil-fuel tax. (History geek footnote: The Civilian Conservation Corps, better known as the CCC, was a successful jobs program in the US born out of the Great Depression to put millions of unemployed people back to work while simultaneously building and maintaining American park infrastructure and helping out with natural and man-made disasters.)

Before anyone blows a head gasket over the mere mention of the word “tax,” let’s just be clear. It is as American as apple pie to expect people and businesses to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Otherwise, taxpayers pick up the tab. Think of it as a tipping fee – fees landfills charge to accept waste - if you’ve been conditioned to hyperventilate when you hear the word “tax.”

By matching up environmental tipping fees with the inherent risks of fossil-fuel extraction, we can put millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans to work cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico and rebuilding our natural ecosystems.

Today, the headlines may be bleak, but our energy future is bright – and windy.