27 May 2012


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Louis Kahn: The Dominican Motherhouse (1)

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.' John 15.1-3

Last summer I wrote about the role of creative destruction in the technology field, and in other fields, and how it might relate to the process of building cities. Creative Destruction is a phenomenon that has a way of turning what we think of as the 'way things are and always will be' on its head, opening up and transforming, and leaving the old ways behind. Yet cities, with their layers of history, are often a different case, less like the mobile electronic device industry- with a new iPad overturning the what people do with their computers- and more like what the thoughtful arborist would do with a tree. Thoughtful 'pruning' is the appropriate type of creative destruction for the healthy existence and growth of a city.

I draw the analogy to the Bible verse, because of the wonderful way it connects our stewardship of the places we live and work to what the Creator provides. Part of keeping things healthy and vital is to carefully remove (and husband the replacement of) the things that hinder or are no longer useful to the life of that thing. But it goes beyond just keeping the 'tree' just healthy. There is a potential for far greater and wonderful things (bearing more fruit), when a city is crafted with a proper eye for editing what no longer is of value.

In our cities we have a lot of the following types of groups, companies, and organizations:

  • Historical groups that insist on saving everything (don't prune anything)
  • Crass developers looking to mow-down and slam up (chop everything down)
  • Architects and edifice builders looking to make memorials to their version of 'good taste' (ignore what everyone else has planted, to the detriment of the vineyard)
  • Re-creationists looking to assemble facsimiles of eras gone by, but in a sanitized form, and with modern conveniences (all modern viniculture is suspect)
  • Strict constructionists, lawyers and the like, who see city building as a series of civil actions, which in tern must be controlled by code and lawsuit for the 'common good' (the heck with the tree and its harvest, what is the rule?)

Trust me, each and all these groups have a component of self-righteousness about themselves, and if any of them were allowed to build a city by their own devices, it would be an awful place. As you can imagine, these folks don't just coexist and get along on their own either, with the right amount give and take to get the job done. Rather it is those who quietly, carefully, work through the issues and disparate forces to get an appropriate result. A beautiful, functional and accommodating result. A result from the pruner, the gardener, the designer, the craftsperson, accomplished quietly with love and expertise. The person that can discern and evaluate what is already there, and appropriately edit. The person that can work with the functional needs of commerce and fit it in to the neighborhood, honoring the layers of history.

It is the designer and the builder who is interested in doing great design, and leaving a mark, but who is also interested in being a part in the whole great city. It is someone who reads what the past can teach, in dialog with the designs and construction methods of our current age. It is someone who appreciates the rules as a framework for building, but who is also aware of the need for fluidity and flexibility of those rules, with a lack of unreasonable encumbrances, in order to active the extraordinary. It is the Craftsperson, the lover of great cities, the pruner of every branch, who makes extraordinary places to live, the great cities.

1 I picked a Louis Kahn drawing because I think he very much 'got' the notion of the craftsman, about the appropriate, the important, about editing, and about history

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