Friday, June 25, 2010

Distillation in the Desert: climate, the environment and how we build

Having been lucky enough to immerse myself in climatic biomes such as tropical forests, mountains, oceanfronts, prairies and temperate forests, it has only been since last week that I finally got to experience a very important one--the desert. Driving through northern New Mexico, I was struck by how such radical environmental conditions, with its extremely dry air and sunny skies, provoked an equally radical response by people in how they built a suitable man-made environment. Though humans have made deserts habitable since the dawn of time, the reason I consider the desert a radical environment is due to its distinct lack of what makes human life (or any life for that matter) possible: water. Without water, either in the air or on the ground, the whole equation to how we build changes dramatically.

It's useful to remember that though our bodies are made up mostly of water. We therefore must consume even more to stay healthy, it constitutes only a small fraction how we use this resource. Most of our water goes to irrigating our man-made landscapes either in the form of farms or private lawns. Still, our direct physical need for water comes first, and in extremelty arid climates like New Mexico, there is little or no irrigation to speak of. It makes one realize how much of the built environment relies on channeling water resources towards mostly leisurely ends. A fountain here, flowerbeds there, green lawns, shaded parks-- they all have the important function of softening the hard and coarse surfaces of urban life. We have a natural aversion to living in something completely manmade, as evidenced by the common complaint of some cities being nothing more than "concrete jungles". Greenery, ponds, and displays of flowing water all contribute to a intrinsically human need for calm and repose in a city, even if it is only intermittent. Though not as important drinking or flushing, this urban role for water is not completely wasteful, even as it requires lots of it.

But in places where water is too scarce to soften the urban environment, what is one left with? Rocks, mud brick and drought resistant shrubbery, if my time in Albuquerque showed me anything. To my pleasant surprise, the city was tastefully landscaped by means of colorful gravel, rocks, cactuses and yucca plants and then some more gravel. The warm yet earthy colors of the adobe walls tempered the hard natural textures, while the ubiquitous turquoise trim elements on windows and doors provided further visual relief. A shallow Rio Grande runs through the city, providing a fertile quarter-mile wide zone from its banks comprised of taller shade trees. It is along this zone that Albuquerque's more pedestrian-centered parks and gardens, such as the zoo, are located. In the context of the desert landscape that characterizes most of the city, the "lush" banks of the Rio Grande feels like an oasis. Though any green space offers refuge from the noises of the city, it is unusual for most of us who live in wetter climates, what with all the weeds forcing cracks through the pavement, to regard them as fragile havens of life. Life hangs by a thread here, despite all kinds of manmade improvements, and it makes one wonder about the resiliency of large urban agglomerations in the desert Southwest.

Though the climate is mostly inhospitable to human habitation, the desert is ironically very hospitable to the preservation of manmade structures. Water is the mortal enemy of all construction, and to repeat a basic truism: water wins. Driving through Central Avenue, the portion of the old Route 66 through Albuquerque, I was struck by how many old buidlings and classic signs from decades ago were still in great condition. The same buildings in my hometown would have long been falling apart due to the moist weather, with the cost of restoring them often seeming futile. In Santa Fe, adobe structures hundreds of years old betrayed little to no wear and tear, fooling one to think that they were constructed within the past year. Old stone churches, such as the the Saint Francis cathedral and the Loreto Chapel, were in pristine condition, spared from deterioration that afflicts their French cousins in their cold and rainy climate. Likewise, the roads were in excellent shape, with narry a pothole to be found. Flat roofs are ideal here, since there is so little precipitation (9 inches/year), which suggests that the Modernist appetite for using such roofs actually makes more sense here than any place else.

From the perspective of Modern architecture as mostly an abstract formal exercise that disregards the natural forces by means of technological fixes, the desert Southwest seems to be ideally suited. The simple cubic masses and the blank unadorned adobe facades of traditional pueblo vernacular predates the Modern style by hundreds of years, even as it was a practical response to the arrid climate, with its diurnal temperature swings, the need for shade and scarce timber resources. With its intrinsic indifference to how to most naturally shed water from a structure coupled with a deep reliance and on mechanical equipment to cool spaces, a Modernist architect can get away with practically anything in such an environment. It seems to partly explain why Modern architecture was so easily embraced in the southwestern U.S., and why the most fertile laboratory for modern design is still centered in the dry but constantly pleasant Southern California. Albuquerque itself is the home of the great Antoine Predock, and other architects that employ a similar aesthetic in Phoenix such as Will Bruder and Rick Joy were unmistakeably influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's own reinvention at Taliesin West in Scottsdale.

This freedom to forge a natural Modernism has much to do with the overpowering landscape. New Mexico's geologic intensity, with its sharp mountain ridges, mesas, boulders and volcanic formations exhibiting a broad spectrum of sandy to pinkish colors commands such a presence so as to overpower anything built on or near these elements. Among so many breath-taking natural monuments, buildings look so small in comparison. The primary visual interest is the landscape, not the architecture. The landscape compels a certain discipline on the built environment, since the story of a place is not centered on the civilized parts of the landscape, but rather on the terrain and its dramatic contours. It creates a grand visual order that overwhelms any other generated by people, and encourages a desire to build structures that harmonize with it by complementing the natural forms, textures and colors. Detached homes are sprinkled along the base the mountains, their cubic masses imitating the rocky outcrops above (refer to image). There is such poetry when experiencing this visual harmony that to build in any other way would be quite disruptive.

Where the landscape is generally flat, the natural order is easily supplanted by a manmade order. A rugged mountainous landscape will always have more emotional sway than a flat grassland, the latter almost beckoning us to instill it significance by building on it. Our biggest and most beloved cities often lie on flat terrain and their allure is due entirely to the human ingenuity in forging a habitable environment. A flat site is whatever you can make it, while a sloped one already imposes limits and forces an occupant to respond to it. If one ignores these limits and builds however one pleases, one gets the impression that it's a violation. At the urban scale, to observe unfettered development overwhelm a dramatic natural landscape is to witness undesireable encroachment. There is a tendency to want to visually contain development from picturesque hillsides, and thus edges are more cleanly defined. Albuquerque, in spite of its steet grid, has very identifiable boundaries which helps anchor it to the landscape. The monumental cliffs of Sandia Mountain serves as Albuquerque's signature landmark, and the relative shallowness of the city's buildings appear to almost bow to its magnificence. Man and the pride embodied in his buildings is instantly humbled by such geologic grandeur.

The extremes of such a dry environment have a way of making one think about the fundamentals in living. We are forced think about what we have, but we realize that how we interact with our natural environment depends where we are. For example, xeriscaping is the default way in which people plan private outdoor spaces in New Mexico, as the scarcity of water in these areas demands it. In lusher environments, I observe many of instances of xeriscaping less about using native species of plants creatively and more about lazily mimicking the landscaping techniques of the desert Southwest. Another is constructing buildings with heavy masonry walls in humid climates. Such walls work well as a thermal mass, and are most effective in arrid climates, where temperature swings are more extreme. Humid climates experience relatively little temperature swings, and instead are best dealt with an architecture that is thin, light, encouraging air to flow through.

Whatever the differences, it 's a good thing for an urban dweller such as myself to get reacquainted with ancient and majestic landforms. In a way I revel in the contrast, enjoying the peaceful and unblemished character of the mountains or the desert only to eagerly return to the congestion and pandemonium of the city.

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