Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Of Course the Oscars Were Boring: Leftists are Dull

Much has been made of the low-rated and generally dull Oscars which aired on Sunday night. As unused moments for humor came and went, production values were bland, and Ellen Degeneres’ segues were lifeless, it was clear that if this was the best Hollywood could put together, no wonder people have stopped going to movies. Upon a bit of reflection, however, I wondered why anyone would be surprised that the Oscars were dull? It’s hard for people who don’t truly love life and embrace its possibilities to have good senses of humor. I mean, would you honestly want to have many of the people so prominently displayed on your television screen so much as over for dinner?

If Leonardo DiCaprio came, he might systematically demonstrate all the ways you are destroying the environment with your inefficient home. Gwyneth Paltrow and Maggie Gylenhall might speak of their concern for the downtrodden, forgetting to mention the privilege and luck they experienced growing up children of Hollywood elite. Or maybe even Al Gore could stop in and share his Oscar-winning “film,” er Power Point presentation about global warming. (That is, unless a snowstorm in this frigid winter keeps him at home). If all else fails, maybe George Lucas could come over. If his conversation is as bad as his scripts, however, it might be a very dull night. (Okay, that wasn’t fair. I do like Star Wars.)

My point is that we shouldn’t be at all surprised the Oscars missed the mark; leftists are boring. Worse, they’re cynical. How could you expect a group of people who believe the earth will self-destruct in ten years to have a good time? When Al Gore is applauded as though he were a savior, you know you’re going to have problems. They are humorless, apparently unable anymore to poke fun at themselves, and they take themselves as seriously as a heart attack. They live lives dominated by fear: fear of the future (why they love raising a stink about global warming), fear of losing control (why they hate capitalism), and fear of virtue (why their movies are cynical to the core). They can’t relax long enough to be witty and self-reflective.

Ultimately, unhappiness seems like it has become synonymous with liberalism. I realize that is an over-simplification. But from my point-of-view, and from a lot of experience with die-hard leftists, modern liberalism has its roots in the negation of God, therefore the negation of the Truth. With this, what are you left with? So movies more and more relish in a postmodern ennui, inevitable disaster, and pointlessness. So few movies can affirm a love and passion for life; it seems to take children to do so, because most directors and writers don’t seem to believe there is much point in living.

Not that films have to be stupidly naïve. Far from it. Great movies of the past wrestled with the difficulties we face in life, and even the temporary feelings of hopelessness we all encounter, but didn’t always give into the seduction of cynicism. Chariots of Fire comes to mind. A cliché, perhaps, but Blade Runner, even set in such stark film noir scenery, is ultimately uplifting. Even Star Trek II is more profound than this year’s sci-fi Children of Men. And I love realistic movies. I was glad Scorcese and The Departed won. I was a huge fan. But realism and cynicism need not be the same thing, and Hollywood doesn’t know how to make the distinction quite yet.

I tried to watch as little of the show as I could, but I do love movies, and their production is rather fascinating. Knowing how difficult it is to get one photograph just right, to make a movie, much less a great one, must border on the impossible. Watching all of the nominees for costume design, art direction and cinematography reminded me how much skill and time goes into a film; acting, consequentially is probably the least impressive feat. (Apparently, even American Idol contestants can become as good as any Julliard-trained thespian overnight. Who knew?) But a lot was indeed missing on Oscar night, and it could have all been predicted if you know the heart of a leftist.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Think Green, but Don't Think You Can Save the Planet

It seems that with every passing week, the call for an architectural response to global warming seems to be getting louder and louder. Demands for more sustainable design and technologies have been given high priority in our education and professional literature already for the past couple of decades. Even architectural licensing exams, which test for a candidate's knowledge in construction and legal liabilities affecting the profession are increasingly requiring extensive knowledge of green building technologies and strategies. Licensed architects are assumed to be able to take responsibility of health safety and welfare, in which green design seems to fall in the fuzziest category of welfare.

It's good to constantly educate oneself in new materials and methods, particular if they lead to greater efficiencies. If so-called ecologically friendly products and techniques also enhance a building's beauty or lyrical power, that's even better. But if a design is considered great strictly because it implements green design, then we should re-evaluate how architecture should be measured.

The preponderance of environmentalism in the architectural profession cannot be underestimated. Not since Modernism has there been such an all-ecompassing systematic and orthodox body of assumptions that have influenced what we are allowed to think and what we are allowed to express. Modernism made forceful assumptions about the reality of the new industrial age and generated a systematic philosophy of design which organically spread to all the academies and professional groups in a span of two decades. Environmentalism has followed a similar path since the Seventies, and now it stands to provide a universal measure on the merits of any architectural design. This is a major development, since ever since the ascension of postmodernism in the late sixties there was any such thing as good design applied to a universal standard. Since standards were mostly arbitrary constructions, as a postmodernist would declare, it becomes pointless to ever seek an ideal of any kind. Green design brings back a universal standard, and ideals have been clearly articulated by countless environmentally aware citizens thoughout the world.

Contrary to what many environmentally sensitive designers might think, Green design has not ushered a revolution as immense as that brought forth by the early Modernists. Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies and even Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to a radical reimagining of space, techtonic relationships, materials and the relationship between inside and outside. Green design has mostly consisted of technological innovations in a building's mechanical systems. Photovolatics, automated lighting control and grey water collection systems are ways to maximize efficiency. Passive strategies such as daylighting, using natural convection and thermal mass along with evaporative cooling are not new to green design, but have been used in building since the beginning of human history. The biggest contribution of Green design has been to complement age-old sensible climate-influenced archetypes with new materials and technologies to minimize energy and water use, while maintaining a level of comfort we have grown accustomed to.

So far I've hesitated so far to call green design 'sustainable'. By consuming less resources to leave for future generations a building becomes 'sustainable'. However, a modern building can never be self-sustaining as it will almost always rely on distant power source and a municipal potable water system to maintain a high standard of living. Lots of resources and energy is used in manufacturing green products, either by recycling or transforming a renewable resource into a finished product. Over the lifespan of the building energy and resources will be required to maintain the building, even if at a lesser rate. True sustainability would more likely be found in an old European stone palace, since it only consumed resources to construct it but required no further resources due to the lack of modern plumbing and electricity. They don't necessarily maintained and some do quite well after a few hundred years of neglect. Masonry palaces are sustainable but few would ever want to live in one without modern mechanical systems.

Since green design is more of a mechanical issue than one of forms, many of the buildings highlighted by green publications as outstanding examples have unexceptional appearances. What often sees is an average house or office building, with the adjoining article listing the various green strategies and technologies in place, along with a few diagrams on how some of the systems are supposed to to work. It's all in the details, and architects will study these case studies not as a conceptual jumping points, but as alternatives to be considered when compiling specifications. This is a thick volume that contains all the materials and systems to be used on a project, sort of an architect's shopping and to-do list for the contractor to follow. Compiling specifications is not that fun, but architects can feel at peace with themselves knowing they chose the 'right' things. I predict that in the next decade, almost everything we specify will have environmentally friendly qualities, and there will be little thought in selecting them. But I don't count on this eventual occurence to prevent the earth from warming or cooling.

It's not a matter of ignorance on my part that I'm skeptical. I, among countless others, have undergone tireless education about ecology, biodiversity, and environmentalist perspectives since as early as I can remember including schooling and scouting where I even earned the appropriate merit badges. I am even guilty to having enrolled in environmental science courses in college in order to fulfill my college’s requirement for a science course that wouldn’t be too hard. I am a LEED certified professional, in which I am capable of leading the client, designers, and engineers in earning points for LEED certification as defined by the US Green Building Council. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most accepted standard in the United States in determining what constitutes a green design. But all this knowledge about environmental issues does not convince me that it should take precedence over other competing needs. I don’t buy the “litany” described in detail by the author Bjorn Lomborg, which is the package of alarmist assumptions about the environment and its complementing ideology about how to resolve problems on earth.

One of the reasons I can’t get too motivated in ‘saving the planet’ has to do with my respect for the values of free inquiry and tempered analysis. These values seem to exist less and less in my professional and academic circles, as it seems that every person or firm wants to outdo the other in achieving a higher level of purity in environmental consciousness. Just a few days ago the American Institute of Architects sponsored a “Global Emergency Teach-In”, and has invited such environmental movement firebrand luminaries like Robert Kennedy Jr. and Al Gore as keynote speakers at its national conferences. The fact that buildings consume 40% of our country’s energy instills a great sense of guilt among architects, and therefore a LEED certified building becomes a form of repentance.

To me, there are more important things architecture should do than prevent that possibility that our world could become a couple of degrees warmer in 100 years. If we can’t predict what will happen in the weather for the next twenty-four hours then it is extremely arrogant of us to be certain what our climate will be like in a century. We should have the humility in appreciating the complexity and unpredictability that is our planet, and that we are a tiny spec compared with much larger forces that affect life on earth. For us to believe that the climate can be tamed if we humans simply exerted our will is pretending to possess an infinite power that we do not have. The call to stop warming presumes that there is an actual ideal climatic norm that we should preserve, forgetting that humans have been adapting to inexplicable swings in the climate for millennia.

We should instead make our buildings more adaptable to however our climate will change. It is sensible to design a building to benefit from micro-climatic features on its site. We should always strive to be good stewards of our land, by lessening as much natural impact as possible, wasting as little as possible, while optimizing the comfort of the resident. Doing so will strengthen the interdependence of the building and its site, which often leads to an aesthetic harmony. The ancient Vitruvian ideal that architecture should embody harmony and beauty, utility, and stability is still most relevant and transcends the virtues of environmental bean-counting (eg.-how much one saves on the electrical/water/gas bill). We should embrace new technologies that deliver on promised performance, and judiciously examine cost. Upfront costs of green technologies are often higher than conventional methods, which, like good Modernist design, are more easily afforded by the rich than the poor. Lifecycle cost analysis won’t convince a single-mom barely scraping by to convert her small house to green design. I’ve visited countless mini-mansions exhibiting green design, as well as office buildings that belong exclusively to the company (rather than renting space). What they can accomplish on the efficiency front is impressive, but I’m doubtful any of them will make much of a meaningful impact on the predicted seven-inch rise in sea levels as predicted by the U.N. Many of these examples of green architecture ignore the harmony/beauty aspect of the Vitruvian equation, and despite improvements still fail at providing adequate utility.

If one studies the evidence, we as a modern society have made great strides increasing efficiency. We have also achieved cleaner air, water, and have enhanced our health. I’ve noticed far fewer stories about real pollution nowadays than what I recall growing up over twenty years ago. Even the supposed ‘crisis’ in landfill space has lost its prominence, since it really isn’t much of a problem. Having improved on all these seemingly intractable matters in the past decades has ironically led not to greater confidence in our ability to help our environment, but to some short-sighted panic about climatic phenomena we are far from understanding well. The hysteria surrounding global warming attests to our lack of perspective of what is really important: making life better for all human kind through prosperity and the technological advances that come with it. The best weapon against unpredictable forces and events is strong infrastructure that wealth can provide. Wealth makes us and what we build more adaptable which is our best and most sensible strategy to our ever-changing environment.