I am not by nature a patient person. Back when I was working with organizations to design and launch sustainability initiatives, we had a metaphor that I liked very much. I borrowed it from one of the early thought leaders of green architecture, William McDonough. He was fond of pointing out that a fundamental problem with sustainable design as defined and implemented is that so much of it was about “being less bad.” He would say, if you’re driving to Canada at 70 miles an hour and you realize you really need to be going to Mexico, you won’t get there by driving to Canada more slowly. You have to turn the car around.
I’m all about turning the car around. Why use all this energy when technology and craft exist to cut our energy use in buildings by 70% right now, today? Yet, clients seemed always to be dragging their feet, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. One day, when I was voicing my frustration with how long all this change stuff was taking, my colleague accused me of wanting to bail out of the car altogether, while it’s still going 50 mph. And he was right!
I did bail out for a while and it hurt as much as jumping out of a moving car would. I guess I tried hitchhiking to Mexico, but people just drove right by, on their way to Canada. Very few of us seemed to be headed south, towards the sun. Those who were tended to be in as rough shape as I was, bloodied with torn clothes from bailing out of their own moving vehicles.
Where am I now? I would say, I’m still walking. It’s slow but it feels fine. Time has helped to heal my injuries, but what has made the greatest difference is the companionship and conversations and sharing of stories, insights, wisdom, questions, pain, fear, hope, and love along the way. There’s a whole crowd of us walking south now, and we aren’t even on the shoulder of the road any more. We’ve peeled off and are going overland, through scrub and meadows and forests, crossing streams swollen with spring snowmelt (although not as boisterous as they once were, since the snows didn’t come the way they used to).
I realized the other day that I am now actively looking for a “real” job. I’ve been looking for a while, but now I feel committed to it, where I was only halfhearted about it before, doing it under duress. I’m going to close my ailing architecture practice for now and get my hands dirty doing something useful; I almost don’t care what it is. I have a friend who says that architects work chiefly for the 1%, which is one of the finest encapsulations of my heartbreak about my profession that I have ever heard.
I love architecture. I love the history of it, the theory, which is rich, intellectual, cantankerous, full of beauty and ugliness, contractions and complexities. I love practice, working with people, thinking about a problem, trying to elevate my conception of it to a symbolic, cultural level, then back down to the ultra-practical issues of getting water off the roof and keeping the heat in. I loved teaching it, talking about ideas and form, seeing abilities awaken in my students, critiquing their work from the big picture down to a detail level. Showing examples from history and contemporary architecture. Teaching them how to analyze buildings to learn not only practical things about structure and enclosure, but principles like symmetry or asymmetry, axial alignments, repetition, rhythm, proportion, materiality, and how well a building embodies ideas and meaning, both of its place and timeless.
Looking for work is a purely practical decision. I’m okay with working in the Old Story, knowing that I bring to it the perspective of New Stories and that my time on the threshold will continue for the foreseeable future. While I would rather have the gumption of someone like Paul Kingsnorth, and so many others who have made the conscious choice to step away and orient as much as they can of their lives to doing no harm, I am beginning to make my peace with the complexities of my own life. Unless I want to dismantle my family and leave everything and everyone I love, I can’t step away as completely as my idealistic self would have me do.
So the threshold it is, the world of both/and. I think I’m beginning to feel if not comfortable here, at least used to it. Clearly, it has much to teach me about patience, humility, curiosity and hope.