Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Economist and the Land: Lessons from Milton Friedman

A few months ago I came across a documentary on PBS recounting the life of the economist Milton Friedman, one of my true intellectual heroes. The production was mostly sympathetic about his accomplishments and his personality, and it revealed aspects about his personal life. One thing that intrigued me as I watched the documentary was the footage that showed Mr. Friedman at home. Rather than spending his personal time near the campuses in which he taught, Friedman and his wife chose to spend the spring and summer months in their rural second-homes. Thoughout most of Friedman's career he and his wife would return frequently to their house in Capitaf in Vermont.

What I remember from the images of the family enjoying themselves at their second residence was the architectural distintiveness of the houses. The "Capitaf" in Vermont was a very modest structure, nestled among the trees that comprise much the forest that covers the property. The main living room featured a panoramic view of the valley below made possible by generous expanses of glass, thin framing. Inside was further connected to the outside with deep overhangs offset from the windows, which emphasized the house's overall horizontal proportions, similar to the Prairie Style houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. I remember the house's materials being simple, reflective of its site and probably the regional vernacular. Milton and his wife Rose would return to Capitaf for more than 30 years, which attests to a true love for the land and his resolve to dwell in a structure respectful to the landscape.

When he was made a fellow at the Hoover institute in Stanford, the Friedmans chose a secondary residence in California that possessed the same kind of relationship with its environment that their home in Vermont had. He states in his autobiography:

"Initially we continued to spend spring and summer quarters at Capitaf, our second home in Vermont. However, we soon came to appreciate the inconvenience of maintaining homes a continent apart and began to look in California for a replacement for Capitaf."

110 miles north of San Francisco off the Pacific Coast, the Friedmans came across the Sea Ranch condominiums and decided that place was optimal for their needs as scholars who love the outdoors. When I learned that he and his wife lived in the condominium community for many years, I was impressed that such a landmark building was so loved by one of the world's most admirable thinkers.

First completed in 1965 Sea Ranch condominium complex is considered by many architectural history surveys as one of the first examples of a “post-modern” style. Counter to principles of universality and uniformity that were embodied in the Modernist movement, the design of Sea Ranch was driven by its surrounding context, being sensitive to a place’s natural and historical particularities. The complex was Charles Willard Moore’s first triumph, and helped establish his reputation as a prophet for the post-modern architectural movement. Moore would go on to run a handful of successful architectural practices, earning the reputation as a humble designer and writer who eagerly collaborated equally with his colleagues and who enjoyed a long career as a teacher. Sea Ranch marked his first major phase that was preoccupied in reinserting formal variety, designing simple details and specifying modest materials. This phase was later succeeded by another that meditated on the role of architecture as a language and ironic metaphor, best depicted in his design of the Piazza d'Italia in the late 1970's.

Whereas a typical modernist response would feature flat-roofs, texture-less walls of concrete or stucco, and large planar glazed walls emblematic of the International Style, Charles Moore’s approach consisted of adapting the formal typology of the North California barn (one of which is found on the site), wrapping the walls with weathered wood siding, and orienting each unit to take advantage of natural day-lighting and breezes available on the site. Projecting bay windows frame views of the Pacific Ocean while providing an intimate scale for the occupant. Each unit is unique in plan and elevation, but such heterogeneity is tempered by Moore’s use of a reductive vernacular, the materials, and repetition of shed roofs. The landscaping is limited to keeping the native grasses short enough to prevent brushfires, accomplished by using a herd of grazing sheep, further emphasizing the historical identity of the site. One’s overall impression is of a quiet village firmly rooted in the landscape, as if it had been there for a long time.

What must have attracted Milton and Rose Friedman to Sea Ranch was the calmness and privacy inherent in its design. The gentle terracing of the units along the sloping bluff, it’s the almost parallel relationship between the roof pitch and the incline of the land helps express a quiet humility in its environment. The lack of porches and deep overhangs are opposite conveys a desire for occupants to be left alone. It’s the perfect environment in which to reflect on all kinds of matters important to such a man like Mr. Friedman. He could pursue his research with complete concentration there. He ended up living over two decades at Sea Ranch before living there became too inconvenient in his old age. He wrote:

"In 1979, we purchased a house on the ocean in Sea Ranch, a lovely community 110 miles north of San Francisco. In 1981, we disposed of Capitaf and began to spend about half the year at Sea Ranch at intervals of a week or so, spread throughout the year, rather than in one solid block. It proved a fine locale for scholarly work. The Internet plus an assistant at Hoover more than made up for the absence of a library near at hand."

Sea Ranch was probably one of the best-known examples of what is now called “green architecture”. It didn’t incorporate as many environmentally-friendly materials as what is available today, but its response to the site’s microclimate, its use of local renewable materials for its structure and exterior as well as its application of native vegetation are common “green” strategies.

To my knowledge, Friedman was not the kind of environmentalist in the sense that he would have favored rationing production by government decree. What seems apparent from his time spent at his Capitaf retreat in Vermont and at Sea Ranch, was that he enjoyed nature for its spiritual and emotional power. He seemed to relish in its simplicity and calm, which probably helped ensure his long life and his undiminished sense of humor.
Update: Welcome Marginal Revolution readers! Feel free to explore other postings on the site. With a Franco-American architect and a classical guitar-playing Lutheran pastor as your writers, there's lots of stuff that you might find interesting...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Is Our Lack of Manners a Return to Primitivism?

I was fortunate enough recently to visit Paris, and I was reminded of the importance of manners. Especially in a place where one doesn’t speak the language, it is crucial, if you aim to be a polite guest, to be sensitive to the mores and traditions of the host. Most of this can be accomplished with basic manners. So my wife and I went out of our way to not be the ugly American, to observe Paris for exactly what it is, and respect it as we found it. The Parisians seemed generally happy to accommodate.

First, some comments on the French: they get a bad rap. Of course, I was a tourist in tourist areas, and perhaps it was in their best interest to be polite to me. After all, Americans are used to tipping, and the French don’t seem to find it patronizing anymore. (We found a 10-15% tip was the norm indicated on the menus.) The rumors of rudeness I had heard proved unfounded for me, even as a non-French speaker. Everyone from wait staff to pedestrians was willing to help, and often spoke English without me even asking if they could in the broken French I remembered from high school and college classes. (It was hopelessly obvious I was an American tourist, complete with a large camera on my shoulder. I have no shame.)

Manners, I was reminded, are the oil of societies. As much as children resist them in their more rebellious years, and as much as societies in general revolt against them from time to time, I see the wisdom in highly regarding a polite society. Criticisms of such societies usually run along these lines: to have excessive manners is to mirror the ruling classes, and hence give them tacit authority for ruling. This is why kids rebel against the manners of their parents, and why entire cultures change their mind about manners. (We no longer curtsy, for example, which is probably a good thing.) Postmodernism has taught us to distrust authority, and consequently, it seems we distrust the rituals, however minor they may appear, that are complicit in such trust.

For example, I am not sure we show the kind of deference we used to for veterans, our elders or authorities. If respecting authority is no longer a recognized value, it makes sense that manners could be seen as disposable. Pastors, politicians, and parents are all traditional authoritative figures that are subject to question, perhaps more now than ever. As I contemplate walking in my father’s footsteps to record my grandparents (all four are still living in their mid-80s), I wonder if my children will have any interest in listening to what they have to say?

I should add some context to my Paris trip as well: before I left, I saw a newscast about the way teenagers have descended to, shall we say, “primitive” forms of dancing, rubbing their hips against each other before so much as exchanging names. I also have mourned anew the popularity of rap music, now that I have finally admitted to myself that it is not a fad, and children from affluent, moral homes cherish to the most base music produced. I know this is nothing new, and I recognize I’m a bore with such topics, but I can’t help but think that these overly sexual night club rituals are but two examples our erosion of a polite society. To disregard manners is to disregard authority. To disregard authority is to lose self-governance. To lose self-governance is to begin the path to primitivism.

I thought about this as I toured Versailles. Unlike the usual shred of contempt I hold for the monarchies in such places, I actually found myself defending them. Of course, I’m a republican (little “r” before big “R”), in the true sense of the word, not an advocate for monarchical power. But at least this place had manners, if nothing else. Absurd manners, sure, probably even oppressive manners. But Versailles and its opulence didn’t look so bad when compared to tribalism our society seems destined to romance.

All of these thoughts from a little trip to Paris. Who would have thought I would leave Paris praising them for their manners and chiding America for its lack thereof?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The President and his Land: Lessons from the Architect of the "Western White House" in Crawford

As stories of Al Gore's profligate energy use for his mansion in Nashville have circulated, some bloggers have made mention of the environmentally friendly design of the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. The former Vice President's practice of offsetting his energy consumption with carbon credits brings to light one way which one proposed way of leading a "green" lifestyle. Paying for the right to emit greenhouse gas in exchange for promises to absorb these gases elsewhere seems much easier than having to change one's lifestyle by rationing energy use and integrating natural processes in our daily lives. Carbon trading seems to me more a matter of abstract bean-counting rather than living a life in greater direct harmony with our natural surroundings that defines the ecological lifestyle.

From my perspective, the greatest benefit in employing green design is the opportunity it avails in strengthening the bond a dweller has with the spiritual qualities of the site. There's a bit of a transcendentalist influence to this idea, but I find that those who demonstrate a true appreciation for nature are those who actually own property on which that nature is found. As property, the natural assets within it has a real, not just transcendent value. The fact that Bush's ranch house features "green" design has less to do in conserving marketable resources on his property than with a desire to demonstrate a genuine love for his site.

How do I know this? I was a student of the architect that designed Bush's "Western White House". David Heymann, as talented a professor as he is a designer, shared numerous stories to his students about the experience for working for "the governor" at the time. Bush's ranch house was planned at the beginning of his second term as governor of Texas. Before that commission, Heymann was engaged more as an academic than a practicioner, having designed a handful of small projects in the midwest and Austin. By serendipity and extremely loose connections with the Bush family, he was entrusted by them to realize their permanent retreat in Central Texas.

Heymann was responsible for teaching site design at the school, and pushed students to ask thoughtful questions about the meaning of landscape, context, and a building's relation nature in the technical and spiritual sense. As the ranch was being framed in Crawford, Heymann would show pictures of its construction and providing details on the systems and materials being used. Although he confessed that his politics were on opposite spectrum of the governor's, he revealed that he has never had a better working relationship with a client than George and Laura. The future first lady made sure that the architect's needs were attended to, even calling him to see if he had arrived safely back from his site visit.

Part of why Heymann enjoyed working for the Bushes was their willingness to listen. As a self-described environmentalist, Heymann was determined to intergrate sustainable design into the new ranch. George W. Bush heard his argument in a one-on-one meeting, letting Heymann make his case. From my recollection, the architect presented the contention that if you love the land that you inhabit that the governor surely did (and continues to return to often during his presidency) you will do what is necessary to preserve its essence, and implement a design that does not intrude upon the landscape. The resulting single-story home is rather small from what it could have been at only 4000 square feet, with heating and cooling partially provided by geothermal technology, rainwater is collected and stored for irrigation. It also resulted in a funny story that involved Laura accompanying the architect at a store searching for water-efficient toilet fixtures.

Construction photos revealed a shallow plan oriented along the path of the sun. A deep roof overhang shades the south-facing facade as well functioning as covered porch that runs around the entire perimeter of the house. The width of the house is limited to single room which uses the perimeter porch as an important means of circulation along the house's length. The porch thus serves as a breezeway, a space that mediates the transition between inside and outside. This transition between the sheltered spaces and the surrounding landscape is made more seamless by the maintaining of grade level throughout. The house does not sit on a raised podium, but anchors itself firmly within the lay of the land. A gravel-filled moat surrounding the porch floor collects water runoff while delineating a sensitive threshold between the house and nature. Copious floor-to-ceiling windows provide each room with distinct views, further tying the indoors with the outside. In an effort to tie the house to the surrounding region as a whole, the house is clad in left-over limestone from local quarries, which exhibit a rich variety of colors often eliminated when processed as a clean, cream-colored masonry. The metal roof, while contributing to a higher albedo (refection of light back to the sky), it evokes the use of sheet metal in barn buildings and sheds in Texas.

Heymann notes that there is a current trend which involves the movement of people who are moving out of the cities to rural sites in order to recapture a sense of calm and the replenishing energy from nature. Like the Bush family's Crawford residence, he sees it as imperative that sensitive site design and an architecture that derives some of its energy and materials on site will reveal nature's regenerative power. Although my former teacher, like half of all architects these days, would call himself "green", his rationale in applying green strategies is for me the most compelling. He may believe that a more systematic and universal application of green methods may make a noticeable difference against global warming, but he also understands that there is more emotional and aesthetic case for green design that can persuade all people regardless of their political disposition. I'll admit that he was one of my school's best teachers, commanding strong rhetorical skills often lacking among architects. Having David Heymann critique your studio project was a mixed blessing, in that he would have a lot to say about your project and would not hesitate to point out the weaknesses or your design at length. But contrary to many reviewers who'd rather fumble with pablum, everything he said was well-reasoned and insightful, peppered with humor and an awkward passion. He ended up posing difficult questions about assumptions we students would take for granted which demonstrated a convincing grasp on the latest architectural theories. I wouldn't be surprised if Heymann's personality as a dedicated teacher rubbed off on the then-governor.

Heymann grew to like the future first family, and may have actually attended Bush's first presidential inauguration. Although he shared little with the president politically, he would not refuse the opportunity of getting to know a man that reached out to his architectural creed. The lesson here is that the relationship between a client and an architect is about more than partisan affiliation. It entails fulfilling an emotional need of the client to his land and allowing the architect to achieve a solution respectful to the site's uniqueness.

This goal is close to what I think architecture should be: creating beautiful spaces that function for the client on various levels, both technically and emotionally. It's a far less defined goal than calculating points for LEED certification or specifying a building's carbon footprint, but it is fundamental towards producing timeless design that moves us in inexplicable ways.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Price of Progress: Are We Still Willing to Pay it?

The other day in class at my very liberal seminary, I committed a cardinal sin: not only did I defend capitalism in the face of Christian theologians citing it as the world’s principle moral evil, I suggested that short-term hardships were often (get ready, here it comes!) “the price of progress.” It went down like this: a member of the class mentioned that NAFTA has “forced” a local plant to shut down and move its jobs to Mexico. I mentioned that this could be considered a good thing for Mexico, to which she responded, “But at the cost of losing indigenous jobs.” I said, “Well, that’s the price of progress.” The collective gasp in the room was surprisingly intense. The teacher struggled to regain control of the classroom, and practically had to save me from the tar-and-feather brigade. What a mistake I had made!

The incident reminded me of two facts: too many in our culture have lost the ability to grapple with complex processes, and too many have lost the willingness to sacrifice. This conversation is the perfect example: in the same breath, a woman who I generally regard as intelligent, bemoaned the ill-effects of NAFTA (a loss of “indigenous jobs”) as well as the fact that her local church didn’t do enough “advocacy” on behalf of the poor. Do you see the contradiction? If you want to “advocate”, support NAFTA! It just gave a lot of good jobs to Mexicans. She wrote off NAFTA based on a soundbyte: “We lost American jobs,” never even attempting to consider the net benefits of free trade. Second, even though she says that she wants to see the lives of the poor improve, she apparently doesn’t think it should cost her or her community anything. Others will have to pay the cost for the lives of the poor to improve: classic NIMBYism (not in my backyard).

Something else has left these sorts of discussions: the ability to be coldly objective. I have written before about the reality that justice is a cold-hearted venture. Similarly, in the world of ideas, to argue a point without emotion has always appeared to me to be an asset. Apparently it’s not. I had to spend a good couple of minutes defending the fact that I, as a pastor, wouldn’t throw parishioners to the curb if they came to the church needing help because they had just lost their job. How I might help someone personally with someone who was unemployed and what I believe objectively about free trade need not intersect; this apparent contradiction was too much for others to take. For me to imply that America and Mexico are both better off in the long run if America stops manufacturing was seen as cruel. While I was stating an objective fact – the loss of jobs is historically the “price of progress” (ask IBM’s typewriter manufacturers) – a roomful of my opponents made personal judgments about my character.

Of course, it’s not just economics. We se it in our foreign policy: we want peace in the Middle East at no cost to anyone (except Israel). We see it in liberal theology: we can’t risk saying to any moral behavior lest it portray us as hypocrites. So what happens, then, when the majority of a country will not sacrifice? Two things come to mind: it must learn to abhor progress, which demands sacrifice. And it also must despise those who promote progress, since they are the harbingers of change. This may explain why leadership in general is a more precarious place to be than before: to lead people towards progress that involves sacrifice disrupts the inertia they have grown to love. So leaders that maintain the status quo (the Clintons come to mind) are heralded while leaders that promote change (Bush) are hated. Until we can accept that there is a price to progress, I will ignore the cries of those who wonder why we never make any.

A final thought: one of the prevailing myths about capitalism is that for one person to get rich, another must get poor. This is not true. Free trade generally ensures that two parties can both be better off by letting the other do what they do best (aka, the comparative advantage). While there is always a price of progress, the beauty of the market is that it minimizes the price, and disperses it fairly.