Service at Circular Congregation Church

Sunday, April 22, 2007

When Henry David Thoreau set out to build his cabin at Walden Pond one snowy morning in March 1845, he created a new chapter in American thought – about the value of self-reliance, honest self-reflection, and the courage to live modestly: to live simply in means, but grandly in thought.

Less well-known is the fact that Thoreau built his cabin out of pine trees he cut on the site and covered it with boards he salvaged from a nearby shanty. By building a cabin for $28, he crafted a message about simplicity. By using the materials he found around him, he was being sustainable….

We are here today to celebrate an addition to Lance Hall, which was originally built just 6 years after Thoreau retreated to the shore of Walden Pond.

While he lived at Walden Pond, Thoreau wrote that “every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay outdoors, even in wet and cold.” As a child growing up in North Carolina, my favorite activities were outdoors, under the trees. Most of what I know as an architect I first learned playing along the banks of a stream in Greensboro.

Thus it came as a shock to me as a young architect to learn that everything I designed would cause the earth to be stripped or mined. I remember being paralyzed for nearly a year while I was designing my first house on the shore of the James River. How could I destroy that soft forest floor for my client’s floorplan? Finally, I realized that the only way I could work as an architect was to promise to make the site better than I found it. Sometimes that has meant not to build at all.

It seemed natural to me to design buildings to catch the sun, accept the breeze, and grow naturally out of the earth. I was thinking sustainablity, but at the time we didn’t call it that. I simply thought it was good architecture. Let me give you an example:

Ten years ago, Jim and Janice Taylor asked me to design a summer house for them on a remote island in the Bahamas. At the time, there was no electrical power on the site and no drinking water. I designed a house that was like an umbrella, with a generous, spreading roof that provided shelter from the sun and collected rainwater for drinking.

There was, of course, no air conditioning. But the shape and orientation of the house allow it to capture prevailing breezes and enjoy natural ventilation. The house is quite simple and quite liberating. Staying there, you experience the sun and sky, ocean and wind with an intensity unknown before.

Needless to say, the house is sustainable. It has to be. And through it, I began to understand the logic of Thoreau’s cabin: Reduce our daily needs to the essentials and live life to the fullest. Begin the world again, to some extent.

Children are not the only ones to discover the world anew. Decades ago, but especially since 2001 and Katrina, it has become apparent that our addiction to oil, our appetite for land, and our carelessness with water were not only polluting the environment, but making our lives unhealthy. Our lungs, immune systems, and skin, for example, are affected not only by how we live, but how we drive and how we built.

According to the Energy Department, residential and commercial buildings account for 40 percent of total energy consumption in this country, versus just 28 percent for the entire transportation sector, including automobiles. Thirty percent of all the forests are cut to make architecture, and 25 percent of all our fresh water is used in buildings.

Clearly, if we want to make a future in which human health and environmental health are one, a sustaining architecture is a good place to start.

Two years ago, you asked me to make a start: to design an addition to Lance Hall – “small rooms with big ideas,” you said. The site was a small outdoor room that held the graves of generations and an ancient elm tree. You asked for classrooms, an elevator, bathrooms – all next to a perfect temple. Talk about a challenging site – to do all this on a swatch of land about the size of a tennis court! I promised to leave the site better than I found it, and to make it “green.”

“Of course, your green building also has to be approved by the B.A.R,”  your building committee told me.

Being from North Carolina, I thought a B.A.R. was a place where you went to drink. But as you know, the B.A. R. is the Charleston Board of Architectural Review, the Supreme Court of architectural review boards.

So while I was designing the modern, green addition to Lance Hall, I kept thinking about the elephant in the living room no one talked about – the B.A.R. How would we make a modern, sustainable Sunday School in historic Charleston, a city more tortured than most by the conflict between past and present.

Well, what we did was to design the most “green” Sunday School we could, with respect for its place –  not only its place in Charleston but in the 21st century. The new addition to Lance Hall has a green roof, which keeps the building cool and collects rainwater. We use cisterns to store the rainwater for irrigating the new courtyard, where children will play in the shade of live oak trees. To conserve energy, the new Lance Hall has a geothermal heat source, using the earth’s constant temperature to heat and cool the rooms. Those rooms will be lit by daylight and filled with fresh air, with windows offering views over the Circular Church. The morning sun will fill the Sunday School rooms. Wherever possible, we used local materials, as Thoreau did. The floors are recycled heart pine. The structure itself is made of Southern yellow pine and recycled steel.

We have tried to use materials reverently.

In the 21st century, unfortunately, we take wood, steel and glass for granted, no matter the effect of cutting or mining them. In historic Charleston, however, you can see in the way people wove a sweetgrass basket, built a steeple, or made a Windsor chair expressed joy in work, and a spiritual quality in how something was made. Materials, no matter how common, are precious. I hope that in the porches of Lance Hall, the way steel columns grasp wooden floor beams, and the way the smoothness of heart pine contrasts with the strength of stucco walls, express our joy in the making of it.

The addition to Lance Hall will have all these wonderful, efficient, green systems, but you won’t have to know that to like it. Just as playing beside a stream can be the greatest learning experience because it is unconscious, so the addition to Lance Hall will teach by experience. Children and visitors will learn about sustainability simply by being here. The new Lance Hall will automatically inspire those who experience it, and exist as your gift to future generations.

And what about the elephant in the living room – the B.A.R.? I presented the green design concept to the B.A.R. with Whitney Power’s invaluable coaching, Bert Keller’s spiritual support, Susan Davis’ advice, and some trepidation. To my great relief, they approved this sleek, modern, sustainable building outright!

“We’ve been waiting for a building like this for years,” they said.

Reinvent the world, I thought.

That brings me to my last point, which is about balance. What our experience with the BAR shows is the possibility that the past and present might learn to coexist and complement each other. The ancient Greeks thought that perfection in art meant balance; that in a painting or a building, you would add nothing nor take anything away without destroying it: balance.

Since the Greeks, we have come to equate balance with beauty, and that alludes to a state we call happiness. I hope that the addition to Lance Hall has balance and happiness!

The task we face –  to build sustainably and to deal with climate change — is immense. I was reminded of that last night, driving to Charleston past miles of suburban sprawl and parking lots, unable to see the sky because of light pollution. What we have done at the Circular Congregational Church is a small start. But I am reminded of the immense change brought about by Thoreau’s cabin — 10 ft. by 15 ft.

A League Of Its Own

Wednesday, September 13, 2000

In an age of declining civic involvement, a Raleigh bowling alley continues bringing people together.

When I learned to bowl in 1961, Western Lanes on Hillsborough Street was two years old, and I was a freshman architecture student at N.C. State. Every Thursday afternoon that fall, about 50 PE students crossed Hillsborough Street, climbed to the second floor of Western Lanes and learned how to bowl strikes and spares. The new building was decorated with orange and turquoise panels and trimmed with lots of shiny aluminum. Raleigh was a sleepy town, but here we felt very up-to-date.
Bowling was big business in the 1960s.

"If you built a bowling alley back then, people would run over you to get in," says Paul Blomquist, manager of Western Lanes. Most people bowled in leagues: Western Lanes was booked solid every night and weekends with leagues of civil engineers, soldiers, glee clubs and church groups. Some people bowled in two or three leagues. Weekends were for family leagues.

League play became a kind of social connector, not only in Raleigh but throughout America for the next two decades. Folks who bowled in leagues stayed in touch. League bowling, like joining a civic club, participating in church activities and voting in local elections, was a measure of civic involvement. More people competed in bowling than in any other sport.

Yet league bowling today is declining, and some would argue, so is civic life. In "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," published this year, Robert Putnam writes that voter participation, membership in clubs, church attendance and other forms of neighborliness have all declined steadily during the past 35 years. League bowling, for example, has decreased by 40 percent.

"The vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades," Putnam writes.

To gauge the effect of Putnam's "civil decline," I walk into Western Lanes at noon on a recent Thursday, sit down in the brown-and-gold restaurant, and order lunch. Throughout the rise and fall of league bowling, Western Lanes has continued to thrive on Hillsborough Street, though its turquoise and orange lockers have faded, and some of the once-shiny trim is dull.

In a corner of the restaurant, a small television flickers like an electronic fireplace. The place reminds me of someone's family room. Indeed, the folks who run Western Lanes are a family of old-timers. Cathy, the restaurant manager, has worked there more than 30 years, and Miss Nina has been cooking for 42. Theresa, who serves me a BLT with fries and sweet tea, has been behind the counter 18 years. As customers enter the restaurant, Theresa gets them what they want without asking--a light beer, popcorn, a slice of coconut cream pie.

"I can tell you what half of Raleigh eats, drinks and smokes," she says. Her eyes narrow as she spots a glass of soda that needs refilling in a corner of the restaurant.

Restaurants, like bowling alleys, are a kind of third place between home and work where we can hang out with friends. Unlike fast-food joints, restaurants offer companionship. Judging by the years people have worked and played at Western Lanes, the companionship here is good.

Companionship of another sort is built into the walls of Western Lanes. Here under one roof is a quirky mix of uses: a PE classroom and a restaurant, billiards and a church-sponsored cafe, shops and an architect's office--all reached by a sidewalk. Buildings like this are little melting pots in a democratic society.

During the afternoon, PE classes come and go, learning footwork, how to score (complicated) and important facts such as the length of a certified bowling lane (64 feet, 10 and 3/16 inches). Next to the PE students, groups of walk-in bowlers play through the afternoon.

"Walk-in bowlers have taken up the slack created by the loss of league bowling," Blomquist explains.

Around 5 p.m. the tempo picks up. Two workers appear to oil the lanes for tonight's league play. Behind the gold anodized arches that hover over each set of 10 pins, Emery Adkins fusses with the pin-setting machines. Adkins is 72 years old and has maintained the 24 Brunswick Type A machines at Western Lanes since 1972.

"He lives and breathes these machines," the night manager tells me. "A real company man."

Adkins wears a blue uniform shirt with his name embroidered over his heart. In his shirt pocket are lined five rum crook cigars. He stands beside a pin-setting machine about the size of a pickup truck. Its metal parts shiver in the fluorescent light.

"With these machines, you want to use preventive maintenance," he says. "Just like an airplane."

Maintenance is laid out with astonishing neatness along the 150-foot-long brick wall behind the pin-setters, where Adkins has stacked and hung thousands of spare parts with the precision of an operating room. To him, the machine has a soul.

"When the Type A pin-setting machine was perfected in the 1950s, it was a mechanical marvel, the peak of American mechanical genius," he says. Today the newest machine is still about 80 percent like a Type A.

Action is picking up on the other side of the arches. A 16-pound bowling ball approaches the pins with a roar, followed by an explosion. Immediately the machine shakes the fallen pins, whirrs and delivers the pins to a steel sorting drum with a clank. Pistons hiss. It's like hearing a mechanical thunderstorm. Adkins lights a cigar.

"Everything is better when it's busy," he says. "Time passes better. And if your business is hustling, somewhere along the line you'll help someone." On the other side of the arches, the machine places 10 pins softly on the maple lane.

At 6 p.m. the NCSU faculty-staff league begins with a few announcements. It's a relaxed game, not highly competitive, where the payoffs seem more social than high-scoring. Folks act out every delivery; little dramas unfold around the scoring tablets.

"It's an extended family," one bowler in her 50s tells me. "Like church in a way. It's one of the few places where professors, lab technicians, bookkeepers and graduate students can get to know each other."

Inevitably, talk turns to declining attendance. "Eighteen years ago we had 60 people in the league bowling 32 weeks a year," says Jim Nye, a civil engineering professor in the league. Now the NCSU league is down to 24 bowlers.

"People just don't seem to be interested in coming out to bowl in leagues any more," says O. W. Robison, a bowler since 1960. He leans back and drains a Miller Light. "Last year the Continental League, after going for 33 years, folded. That's a generation!"

No one can account for the decline in league bowling--mobility, the growth of suburbs, increased choices for leisure time, and television are possibilities. Times are changing at Western Lanes and elsewhere. America has moved on from the mechanical genius of the automatic pin-setter to the virtual community of the Internet age. As we are more connected electronically, our lives spin further apart.

Meanwhile, instructors have taught generations how to bowl, and in league bowling there is another lesson: Making neighbors out of strangers is part of the game. Bowling is a classroom for civic pleasure, for having fun in the company of people you don't know. As Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century writer who loved the taverns of London for their social spirit, said, "As important as finding people you have things in common with is learning to live in pleasure alongside people you don't."

A week later I went back to the Western Lanes restaurant to have lunch with my daughter, Laura. Theresa was obviously pleased to see us.

"Sweet tea with your BLT and fries?" she asked me.

Unparking UNC

Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Will the Chapel Hill campus become a model for easing sprawl?

Faced with an enrollment spike of 25 percent over the next few years, UNC-Chapel Hill is planning the campus of the future. By 2008 bike paths, greenways and regional rail could serve both the old campus and new academic buildings clustered around traditional brick courtyards. Under a plan that goes before the UNC Board of Trustees in the fall, the restructured campus would resemble a pre-automobile town, with residential, research and academic life mingling in a walkable environment.
More than a bold vision for one university, the new Chapel Hill campus could become a model for containing sprawl in the Triangle's cities and towns. Walkable town patterns are being urgently discussed throughout the region today, as planners seek to replace sprawl with intelligent growth. The key, of course, is figuring out what to do about all those cars. And the success of UNC's plan will depend on how it deals with the 17,000 already parked on campus every school day.

Cars were on the mind of Jonathan Howes, former mayor of Chapel Hill and professor of planning and public policy at UNC, when I met him on campus recently to talk about the new plans. In a room padded with maps, diagrams and models, Howes described the past and future of UNC--and the way he hopes they'll be intimately connected.

"From its founding in 1793 to 1945," Howes explained, "the campus developed as a parklike chessboard of quadrangles. Polk Place and McCorkle Place, with the Old Well at their intersection, form the core of the North Campus." This is the UNC campus you see in postcards: a serene mix of academic and residential buildings, bikes and pedestrians, small streets and undergraduates sunning themselves on low stone walls.

After 1945, the campus spread southward during a time of rapid growth and postwar prosperity, with UNC Hospitals and research labs leading the way. As enrollment grew from 8,000 to 24,000 students, cars became a prominent feature of the new campus. From an intimate campus where folks walked to class, UNC was transformed into a commuter destination for thousands.

To provide beds for some of the new students, high-rise dormitories were built in the woods south of Kenan Stadium. The rationale was simple enough, however flawed it looks today: High-rise buildings were quick to build, and they required less effort to fit into the campus. Building high also meant more space on the ground--for parking, of course. At the same time, the nearby hospitals grew exponentially, with additions (and parking lots) added like barnacles to a shell. To serve the increased traffic, four-lane Manning Drive was built, bisecting the campus like a modern Mason-Dixon Line.

The result has been clear for quite some time. "The South Campus," said Howes, "has little relationship to the charm of the North Campus. There is less sense of intellectual community there."

One big reason for the contrast between UNC's older and newer campuses, says N.C. State professor and landscape architect Mary Myers, is the prevalence of cars--and spaces for them--on South Campus. "The greatest impact on the UNC campus is not computers, but cars," Myers says. "Look at the old North Campus: big trees, gracious lawns, elegant buildings grouped in quadrangles and very few cars."

While the North Campus is built to pedestrian scale, South Campus sprawls with cars. "What the strip mall and big-box store are doing to the Triangle, the mega-sized research lab and parking lot are doing to South Campus at UNC," she says. "The South Campus is not about people anymore, it's about cars."

Enter Ayers Saint Gross, a Baltimore firm of architects hired by UNC two years ago to restructure the campus and plan for future growth. Architect Adam Gross wants to make the South Campus "not only livable but enviable." His vision is bold. With input from faculty, students and alumni, Gross has proposed a plan that would extend the old North Campus southward, creating a series of new quadrangles. In this chain of outdoor rooms, classrooms will mingle with new, small-scale student dormitories, cafes and shops.

But what will happen to the parking lots? The keystones of the new plan for South Campus, according to Gross, are new academic structures that will replace the Bell Tower parking lot and the Rams Head parking lot--sort of.

Because both of these parking lots are located in natural valleys, Gross plans to fill each valley with a parking deck. On top, at ground level, would stand academic buildings around a North Campus-style quadrangle. The quads would invite pedestrian traffic, with students changing classes and flowing easily to and from other parts of the campus. Parking and academics could peacefully coexist.

To see the clash of parking and academia Gross' plan would avoid, look no further than the Kenan-McColl Center, perched on a South Campus hill next to the Dean Dome. Built recently in a brick-and-stone style that looks like the North Campus on steroids, the Kenan-McColl Center forms a courtyard about the size of a baseball diamond. Unlike the North Campus buildings it resembles, though, the center is ringed by roads and parking. A multistory parking deck, nearly the size of the Kenan-McColl Center itself, is attached on the north side of the hill.

You immediately sense that the environment at the Kenan-McColl Center belongs to cars, not to you. Instead of inviting you outside, the center gives you the message to stay indoors. Campus life, the brisk exchange of knowledge and sociability both indoors and outdoors, is not encouraged. And yet that kind of campus life is the traditional essence of UNC.

For academic life to prosper nowadays, Mary Myers and other planners believe that public transport is essential. "Parking structures are a very expensive short-term solution," she notes. "We've got to explore options, using rail, bus, bicycles and footpaths to move people."

Chapel Hill-Carrboro and UNC have a head start, with a well-serviced bus system and a budding system of bike paths and greenways. The Ayers Saint Gross master plan builds on those systems, planning for no growth in parking spaces and adding a corridor for light rail along Manning Drive. In the future, Myers believes, UNC could be linked by rail to Duke, N.C. Central and N.C. State universities--with students at all four campuses using their laptops, not their brakes, while traveling from home to class.

Ayers Saint Gross will present its final master plan to the UNC Board of Trustees in the fall. If the trustees approve it, they will not only secure UNC's future as an academic environment, but make a giant leap away from the Triangle's sprawl patterns. As Myers asked, "What if we said, 'We're not going to build parking structures anymore, we're only going to build train stations?'"

A remodeled UNC, mixing the academic environment of the past with transit technology of the future, could provide some important answers to that critical question.

An article for The Independent Weekly, by Frank Harmon