Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Reading Books So You Don't Have To: The Original Green

The Original Green by: Steve Mouzon

http://www.originalgreen.org/OG/Blog/Entries/2010/2/8_Original_Green_Book_is_Finished_files/shapeimage_2.png

First, I would like to thank Steve Mouzon. He was nice enough (or at least understands viral media) to send me a free review copy of his book The Original Green. Steve is an architect born and raised in a the vernacular of ante-bellum deep South architecture, now residing in walkable South Beach Miami, FL where he also maintains a blog of the same name full of essays, many of which became the foundation of this very book.

I have had the chance in the past to catch some of Steve's presentations where he was still formulating the backbone of what this book is the ultimate accumulation and then distillation. This book is not a road map; a point to point summation of the turns and distances we have to travel to return to building sustainable places. That would be impossible. That would be the equivalent of architects telling us what the world will be like in 2030. Rather than a road map, what Steve is providing are the GPS coordinates for where we got off track, how we did it, and the basis for getting back. The rest is up to us.

His words are not overly doctrinaire. They are also not technical in the least. The book speaks not just to architects, planners, city staffs, or elected officials, but to everyone b/c in Steve's view (and rightly so in my opinion) it is going to take all of us to return to building livable, lovable places to live, love, and learn as a way of life. Great urban places are made over time by the thousands of decisions made daily by the hundreds, thousands or millions of inhabitants, day by day, year by year, molding the grand, well-intentioned visions of architects and planners into something they can actually use.

This isn't so much a how-to guide but a tool for empowering you, me, and everyone else. It is a pattern book, which is the real strength of Steve's talent. He discusses in the book how work in the Caribbean proved difficult in coding a project with the conventional technical jargon of American planners. So he created much more poetic principles and painted them on the walls and fences of the community. Later, he found children who stumbled upon the "graffiti" and turned the stanza into a song, ingraining the positive message.

Where city codes, design guidelines, or CCRs can extend into incredibly detailed and mind-numbing minutiae, Steve distills complicated ideas into simple patterns or principles, the "artifacts" of originally sustainable places. The book is prescriptive rather than proscriptive. There is something empowering to that. Rather than a regulation they are a goal to achieve where if the simple basics are followed would then allow for useful and locally suited manifestations done so in a unique and creative manner.

His principles of sustainable places are those that are:
  • nourishable
  • accessible
  • serviceable
  • and securable
Sustainable buildings are:
  • lovable
  • durable
  • flexible
  • frugal
All of which he elaborates with exquisite simplicity and clarity, a necessity for the large umbrella topic of livable places, since we all have the same basic needs, wants, and desires. The Original Green allows for all of those, but retains the flexibility of choice, in choosing your own adventure based on your own personal priorities.

He also shoots holes in the conventional wisdom of how these artifact principles have been distorted or misinterpreted. For example, he cites the desire for securable places. Not out of the ordinary. Safety and shelter are primary basic needs as described by Abraham Maslow.

In today's anti-urban, unsustainable place, security has come to mean gates, walls, fences and seclusion. However, that desired isolation is exactly the kind of place criminals are looking for. Emergency response times are delayed by the sparse population density. The flashlight of human activity is the best deterrent, always making for the most secure possible place without the diminished quality of a life in seclusion.

One of the other great strengths of this book, is Steve's wonderful photography. He shows many examples of the types of places he is discussing, a helpful accompaniment particularly to the layperson in order to help visualize the types of places he is talking about.

In fact, his photography is so stunning that you almost wish it was a much larger coffee table book. However, it isn't. Rather than being the two things it wants to be: a small handbook and a large glossy, it instead became a regrettable hybrid of the two, a small, but glossy book where my notes washed away and the jacket fell to pieces half way through the first reading. Like many hybrids, now it is neither.

This unfortunate drawback reminds me of another book, Cradle to Cradle, which is essentially an unwitting, esoteric companion piece to The Original Green. That book was entirely synthetic. The goal of which was to create a book that itself was cradle to cradle so that the books pages could become something else at a later date. Unfortunately, publishing technology at the time couldn't quite keep up with the idea but at least it was compatible with the thesis.

With Original Green, I find the quality and character of its publishing to be its biggest drawback. I want to make notes. I want to look at high resolution photos. The book is meant as a stepping stonewhere we build our places and communities as outgrowths of ourselves following the basic principles of original sustainability.

That is what we're supposed to do isn't it? Build upon the foundational principles and make them our own. But I can't make my annotated elaborations within its borders. The book is the spark but we have to fan the flames and keep the idea burning ourselves.

That is the only road to authentic places.