Winter 2013
how does the built environment influence you?

Small cities cluster indistinctly around the Puget Sound,

slanting from the surrounding hills in a shared grey.

The sea smell hits just when the stoplights begin,

where foggy alley trash becomes tidal wrack,

and midday crowds circle the gum-speckled concrete.

Whether in imitation or reluctant acceptance,

our lives here resign themselves to half submersion.

Dawn: coffee colored cabins

Dusk: cedar taverns

We struggle for energy while water streams down the windows.

Like mollusks, we strengthen our cling,

hoping to consume something invisible from the passing tides.

So we must celebrate a life piled upon the dead,

singing at night to keep the converted factories above the mud,

looking to thrift store Carhartts for work experience.

The homeless man with the drumsticks

tests the signs and lightposts for each days resonance.  

Outside the café, he twists nearly spent tobacco shavings

into what was once a sailors pipe.

This collection of cities is oriented outward-

toward fish and trade, leaving and separation.

But even from the shore, the old ocean,

which causes all the joy and depression

felt when the unknown is unknowable,

is sucking us back down through the piers

like vanishing industries.

Puget Sound - Shannon Smith
The science-fiction of the 60s and 70s by Asimov pitied those primitive worlds that were energy-constrained. The future would have terraforming, fission plants in space, energy from magma, an entire planet enclosed in domes with controlled lighting and air conditioned to an unremarkable temperature.

Some other smart aleck from the 70s once said that “planning would be contrary to our national genius.” I suppose that we can blame it on that - we just didn’t plan for this. We all thought our future would be more like Asimov’s stories and less like Frank Herbert’s Dune. You know, the parts where people on the dry planet spend their time harvesting the dew and rioting over the water consumption of new non-native trees. We just didn’t plan on the lack of a magic bullet for our problems.

Most nights about this time, I sit and look out at the bowl to the West and think about how lucky I am. I came up here to run this forest back when people were still hot on the idea of biofuels from trees and the temperatures in the city were only 110ºF. Everyone agreed that it couldn’t get hotter than that, although of course it did. I look down through the QwikGro pines at the few remaining lights in the valley and wonder how long they’ll continue to flicker on.

When I first moved up onto the mountain, I missed the convenience and closeness of the city. Having a drink with friends after work, taking long showers without checking the level in the tank first. And it took a little while to learn to sleep through a windy night. I put two concrete foundations as deep as I could dig but the other end of the cabin is mounted thirty feet up two pine trees sticking straight up out of the steep slope below. At first a wobbly cabin on a near vertical sidehill seemed like a joke. But as temperatures rose and the aquifer level fell in the city,  I started to get some neighbors.

A few years after the tree farm went bust, I was tromping through the woods one day when I found the spring. It ain’t much, but I figured it would be much better than collecting the three and a half inches of rain water a year from my roof. If I could get some help laying the irrigation pipe that is.

So when some friends wanted to build a cabin near me, I said great - let’s put it just uphill of mine. And before we start building let’s tap that spring and lay some pipe straight down the hill. And let’s just build a kitchen cabin between us - I hate it when bears break in and wake me up looking for food. (Before I kept a box of firecrackers near my bed to throw at them when they did. But it was a pain.)

They say monarchs make the best urban planners and luckily I’m king of this sidehill. Aligning each of my new neighbors to branch off of the main artery of spring water has sprouted all sorts of fruit: from the bluegrass on the kitchen porch keeping the cooks company down to our graywater drip irrigated tomato garden.

Our mutual/vertical arrangement would have seemed bizarre to those used to single family houses aligned in horizontal rows. But with about thirty buildings on this little hillside now it’s clear that something about our realigned lives works for us here. Better than the hardpan down below anyway.

I have my own life

And I am stronger

Than you know

But I carry this feeling

When you walked into my house

That you won't be walking out the door

-Stevie Nicks

A poster from a show by a small-time metal band I've never seen hangs in my spare room. It's of a conquistador skeleton on an abstract background, a gift from an ex-boyfriend that remains one of the single best gifts I've ever received. He correctly guessed my favorite from all the posters wheat pasted to the wall of the only good music venue in town. There aren't many relics in my house from the boys who have come and gone. For one, none of them are saints, and for another he's the only one I'll always love a little.

Relationships are rooms occupied by the people involved. At best, they are decorated by two individuals deeply in love and precisely in sync, each bringing artifacts from their pasts and treasures from their hope chests. These are the homes decorators would call "organic" rather than "curated," warm and welcoming with a feeling of family and history and habitual use. At worst, the room is littered with the clutter of the past, with exes like awkward rocking chairs built for worry and stubbing your toe on in the dark. These rooms can be entered into together, or can merely be a corner of your larger life that someone strays into briefly for a time. The moment someone walks in the door can be as significant as when Stevie Nicks first met Lindsey Buckingham at a California high school party. The moment someone walks out can feel as devastating as Sid Vicious leaving Room 100 at the Chelsea Hotel.

I bought a little orange bungalow a few months ago after the breakup of a one-year relationship. I didn't know it at the time, but realized weeks later I went through with the sale because I was tired of waiting. I was tired of waiting on love, tired of waiting to come home. For ten years I've believed in the Bruce Springsteen fantasy that love begins on the run and ends in a promised land. If love was true, my man and I would build something beautiful and immovable. We would be pioneers finally settling on the edges of the prairie, our farmhouse still standing one hundred years later as a cathedral to toil and love.

My exes and I, we conducted our relationships at our parents' houses, in dorm rooms and dingy apartments, in the homes of roommates and past and future lovers. We went to coffee shops and concert halls, back seats and brewhouses, tawdry motels and smart downtown suites in distant cities. I've been so many places with these boys, everywhere but home. We've never built anything to last. I signed lease after lease, keeping my options open, staying purposely rootless in case love needed me to take root somewhere else. After a decade of living in other people's homes, I was tired. I was tired of waiting for someone to join me when I could build something special for myself. I was tired simply of waiting at all.

My house was built in 1920. It has a low front porch and a small front yard, perfect for the Southern pastime of porch-sitting and saying hello to passing neighbors. Its windows are the original wavy glass, distorting your view in the most delightful way, casting rainbows on the bedspread in the afternoon. Though it's not a large house, it gives you a sense of wandering, the layout takes a meandering path that is satisfying to walk through. The rooms are square and comforting, but are well-sized. In other words, it is perfectly proportioned for a young, single professional and a small grey cat who are tired of tiny apartments and short relationships.

This is a house that has known many long and happy lives, some of which probably began and ended on the premises. I have a hard time imagining inviting a lover here because this house is so entwined with myself that merely asking someone to cross the threshold would be an immensely intimate act. Relationships are rooms we build together, a delicate architecture that may or may not stay in fashion or up to code, that may one day be razed to make room for something new. Whether physical or metaphoric, we all need shelter, a place to imprint upon and that can mark us in return.

In the back of my house, as in the back of my mind, is this solitary souvenir from a place and time with the boy who made the biggest impression. It hangs on the wall, mixed in with pieces of my childhood and young adulthood and hand-me-downs from my parents. This place is mine now, filled with my small personal history. This house and I are making an impression on each other day by day. We are taking up more and more space within one another. To simply have room for my things, to pick out paint colors and spread out while I cook, my pulse maintains a slower pace. At night I lay in bed and listen to my favorite albums, in case the house has not heard them before. Sometimes it sings back, creaking and whistling as it settles and adjusts to changes in temperature and weather. I play it love songs, and in return it sings me lullabies.

There is the architecture of a relationship, but also a relationship with architecture. This house is more than its plaster lath walls and sloping heart pine floors-- it is where I first invested significantly in my relationship with myself. Perhaps one day someone will walk in, see what I've built, and decide to add on, to mix their things and history with mine. Perhaps he and I will move on somewhere new together, seeking a new frontier. Perhaps this is simply where I was meant to be alone, but not lonely. One thing’s for sure, if a day does come that someone walks into my house, I carry a feeling they won't be walking out the door.

There aren't many relics in my house - Skye Bacus

"I won't be here on Thursday but Alfred here will be collecting your papers on classical ornament. Say 'hello', Alfred."

“No, Ian, you’re conflating the two. Yes, bitcoin prices are high but the chances of mining a block of them are at an all time low. Just look at the block allocation model. I don’t want to call it a pyramid scheme because maybe it isn’t technically a pyramid scheme, but come on. The allocation model greatly favored the early adopters. The blocks are less common and harder to get and by now you’re competing with every dude who likes computers but is bad at math. Also: probably botnets. If you could figure out how to do it without a significant investment in hardware and energy, I’d say go for it. Fuck it, why not? You might be able to use the computers in the language lab or book time on the Cray over in Tammany but if they figured out what you were up to, well, at the very least you’d lose your financial aid.”

"That's an interesting question, mizz, uhm, Berksworth is it? Also, I must confess that I admire your courage. Most in your position would not so blatantly betray so poor an understanding of the fundamental concepts that we have now spent two months considering."

“Now, for the other half of the thing: there is no way prices can stay this high. It’s all hype. No one thought the Beanie Baby bubble would burst but it did. This is Beanie Babies for the 4chan and fedora set, for bored tax cheats who want something to brag about at dinner parties, for creeps who want their heroin mailed to them. People are buying in because they hear news stories about how rapidly the ‘value’ is growing. It’s a snake eating its own tail. Look at Cyprus. Did the Cypriots fall for bitcoin? No, no they did not. But really, do you really want to know how I know that bitcoin has jumped the shark? The fucking Winklevoss twins are all in.”

“Every semester I get a few papers that try to read a life and death theme into the egg-and-dart motif ‘modeled’ on a lackluster piece of scholarship immortalized in some fraternity’s test bank. Don’t, just don’t.”

Dave was overfull of differential equations, nigh effluent. He was all anxiety and no sleep. The midterm was at three so he had four, no, six hours. Ian and Paul were both already on campus, probably sleeping in lectures, so the house was quiet except for the sound of fans in the laundry room. The simple parts of his brain wanted sugar, bright lights, the idea of plenty. They won out, the balance of power having finally shifted, or maybe the parts of his brain that had been trying to memorize all night just conceded.

It was almost embarrassing that Diff. E.Q. was hard. It was little parlor tricks; identify the type of problem and then use a prescribed method of solution. Plug and chug. It seemed like the sort of thing you ought to be able to teach a chimpanzee how to do, or maybe an eager collie.

He took the Corolla out on the parkway and thought about how you can’t really make a mobius strip out of paper, because paper has an edge, a thickness, and anything you make out of it is going to be a volume, not a surface. That edge, though, would also be a mobius strip. So, when you try to make a real life mobius strip, you inadvertently create a second one because what you’re really creating is the volume defined by two locally perpendicular mobius type surfaces. Dave liked it when there was a sort of symmetry in an act and its unintended consequences.

He found himself, engine off, in the Walmart parking lot, with no memory of the act of getting there. It had been automatic. He went inside, shuffling past the greeters. He likes the high ceilings, the idea of space and the thought of those big steel roof trusses, and therefore the roof itself, going on forever, a study in planar geometry.

Surrounded by jars of pickles, he realized he had forgotten when it was appropriate to use the method of Frobenius. He knew this four hours ago.

He wanted coffee and so he wandered over to the coffee maker section of the store. A low counter brimmed with GEs and Mister Coffees, Dunkin Donuts k-cups. He stared at the machines, grabbed the handle of a brushed steel carafe, actually picked it up and pulled it out from under the basket before he realized the disconnect, that there was no coffee in it, and he sheepishly replaced the carafe and toddled off toward the consumer electronics department where, by the DVDs, they have the movie theater style boxes of candy for ninety nine cents.  

“If these ornamentations arose, for use in temples, from a contemplation of the question ‘What forms are pleasing to the gods?’, then their appearance in buildings of state and private residences of the last few hundred years suggests a dangerous lack of humility.”

“So, yeah, Ian, if you want to spend your time and a small fortune building an energy guzzling machine whose sole purpose is the speculation of a currency, and I say currency loosely because it is neither backed by any government, reputable or otherwise, nor is it in any way tangible, a currency whose primary use, it would seem, is its own speculation and whose value has been temporarily grossly inflated by idiots enrapt with its novelty, then by all means, go for it. Sure.  But once people lose interest and the thing crashes and any blocks you might generate, though your chances are rapidly decreasing on that, are rendered worthless, remember that I told you that this would happen.”

“Ancient forms, with unknown power, re-appropriated by an arrogant and ignorant merchant class with no understanding of the semiotics and no piety to speak of. Neoclassicism is then, at best, unwitting grave-robbing, and at worst an act of heresy against the old gods. Again, no class on Thursday but papers will be due all the same.”

“Ah! They’re right behind us!” Eva shouted, a hint of laughter underneath the fear in her voice. Marco, still running, turned his head around: there they were. It seemed like half the town, chasing after them. The most haphazard army the world’s ever seen – women with wicker baskets of flowers, carrying groceries, interrupted doing their evening chores, men in soccer jerseys and worn, pastel polos and cheap, dark suits, some clearly half-drunk, the older ones just standing and watching. Everywhere black hair and olive, Italian skin. A few faces stood out: Giuseppe Antonio, who ran the corner store, and his two young sons – the boys’ little feet kicking up dirt into brown clouds as they ran. Marco’s father, his face determined, his black eyebrows furrowed, lips set, his grey tie flying up in his face and, much further back, Clara, Marco’s little sister, crying as she ran, her arms flapping at her sides.

“Come on!” There was Eva’s voice again. Marco looked over at her, next to him, and shook his head: her mascara smeared under her eyes, her blonde braids unraveling. She looked so out of place, he thought, mud from the dirt road spattered across the bottom half of her navy blue dress, the one with the lace, and soaking through her fancy, red leather shoes. He’d asked her again just the other day why she always dressed up so much, and so weirdly too, she wore the strangest things, he’d said, and she’d blushed and looked away, and his mother had laughed and smiled, looking up at them from the living room table, where she was playing solitaire.

They passed the white stone church, and in front of it, the statue of Saint Michael, blue sky and the mountains, green and brown, in the distance behind it. How strange it felt, breaking the rules, Marco thought – his arms moved awkwardly at his sides, full of adrenaline. At each step, he half expected himself to be unable to move forward, his legs to stop obeying. If they were caught – and he knew they would be caught, they both knew it, of course they’d be caught – his parents would… he didn’t want to even think about it. But he’d told Eva he’d do it. He couldn’t turn back. Though he wouldn’t realize it until many years later, it was one of the things he loved most about her – how she saw everything in absolutes. He knew there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that he would do what he’d said he’d do.

“I’ll get that,” Marco said, getting up from the dinner table to answer the door.

“Hi,” he said, looking at Eva standing on his front steps, her blue school bag on her back. He had hoped she’d look a bit sadder. They’d said their goodbyes at school earlier. She’d said she’d stop by when her family was getting ready to start the drive. When she had told him her family was moving, to Milan, in his room last Saturday, she’d been so matter of fact about it. Yes, she really was moving, she’d said. Her Dad had gotten a better job at a better museum, she’d said. She said she’d write, and he could visit, and she’d definitely come back at some point. They could send postcards. She had been very excited about the postcards.

“Let’s go,” she said.


“We’re leaving! Come on, before my parents finish packing,” Eva said, grabbing Marco’s hand and running out the door, leaving it wide open.

Marco could feel the sweat on his lip, and looked over at Eva, who laughed. They’d been running for five minutes. He could still hear the footsteps and occasional shouts behind them, though he looked back and saw the crowd was thinning out. The fear had gone away. The town was fading away behind them. There, to their right, was the elementary school, a small building of grey brick, two stories high with the yellow slide and monkey bars out front. Up ahead, the blue of the sea was just starting to show over the last hill.

“What’s in the bag?” he asked, panting.

“Everything we need!” she said, grabbing his hand.

They passed the last pastel houses, with their green wooden window shutters and orange stucco roofs, and there – they were here. The port. It was small and full of small sailboats that belonged to the families in town.  A thin wire fence, waist-high, separated the promenade from the bright blue Mediterranean below. Eva rested her elbow on Marco’s shoulder as she kicked off her shoes, and then she was jumping over the fence and into the water, and he was following her. He was falling, it felt like forever, and then a splash and he felt heavy and the cold of the water pulled him down, and then he took a breath of the unbelievably fresh air and swept his wet hair out of his eyes. Eva smiled at him, six feet away, treading water, and then she turned, swimming to the nearest sailboat, an orange one, Maria, it said in white on the side – they’d seen it a million times before. It belonged to Nunzio, the tailor. Marco fought against the water, and in a few moments he was there. Eva held onto the boat with one hand, breathing heavily, and pulled at her blue dress, which clung to her skin.

“Marco!” He heard his father’s shout. Looking up, Marco saw him at the fence, swinging one leg over, and then the other. To Marco’s surprise, he was smiling.

“Ah, I guess it’s over. The race...” Marco said.

“It’s alright,” Eva said, and shrugged. “You came.”

Marco heard several splashes, and looked over towards the shore, and saw his sister and father, and Eva’s mother and father, swimming over to them. There were thirty or so people at the fence, above, talking and laughing and watching.

“Oh, I forgot,” she said, blushing and reaching into her bag, which was still on her back. “Here, it’s for this weekend. If you’re free, I mean.”

It was a train ticket, soaked through.

“I’m sure they’ll still accept it!” Eva said enthusiastically. “If you want to come, I mean. If your parents will let you go,” she finished, busying herself with the ticket in her hand, dabbing it with the corner of her dress.

“Yes, I’ll come. I want to come,” he said. Her hand looked clammy as she continued to dry the ticket off.

She smiled, and opened her bag again and carefully put the ticket back inside it, in a nylon velcro wallet.

“Oh, okay. Well, make sure to get to the station early, so you get a seat! And I’ll meet you at the platform, just call me and tell me where you’ll be. And oh, I’ll bring lunch, and we can go to the park, I’m sure there’s a good park, I know it’s a big city but big cities actually have good parks, I was reading… ”

He didn’t really hear the rest of what she said. He took a dive underwater, swimming back to shore, and everything slowed down -- the repeated motions, his legs kicking behind him, arms pulling at the water ahead, dragging it towards his sides and behind him. His eyes were closed, the image frozen in his mind -- Eva, his family, everyone, exactly where they were supposed to be. The sun shining on the water in the port, bringing out all of the different blues you could only see on such a perfect day. If he could just stay under the water, he thought, time would have to stop. He could only hold his breath for a little while, so it would just have to. But then, however, he felt the tightness in his chest, his throat squeezing against itself. As his shoulders rose up, towards the surface, he grasped at the water below, trying to hold on, to pull himself down, but couldn’t. The cold air hit his face and he took a giant breath, and turned around, and saw the boats in the port, green and red and blue and pink, swaying gently, just where they had been a moment before.  

(work in progress)

as many, many times bored in the bank in line
waiting for a sucker behind my mom's purse and wooden sandals
maybe a root beer dum-dum with a joke on the wrapper right behind my
ten year old head the portable hole opened up to the shelf of Everything just like
bugs bunny could lay it out and dive on in to pop out from a tree I'd reach
into a magic bag & shelf pull out maybe volume 4 Cal-Cot gold stamped of the
junior brittanica read about california cauliflower chemistry compost copper mining to marvel
at the sky! its depth! so much up there that we are in, traveling through! reach in
to that portable hole and bag of holding into time to the minds of dead friends over the barriers
of the river of death or a Wall round the world their hands moved with ink
or clay in THE world the real world right there, right over, right behind my head
and maybe everyone's head, a backwards camera in tight focus so every moment
could have every thought and book! Every song! Then I'd get that sucker, unwrap it
read the joke & chew till the layered white stick unrolled its paper layers to my teeth

When we were 21, my friend Anna and I flew to New Orleans and spent a week walking around the city. In contrast to the bleak east coast cities where we lived at the time, New Orleans seemed magical, a place where adventures and coincidences cascaded like dominoes every time we walked down a new street.

One evening we ended up drinking beer with a musician in his courtyard apartment. When he had to leave, he pointed us to an open art gallery event in a nearby neighborhood. The street was closed to cars and jammed with people. We wandered down it drinking wine from plastic cups and stopping into galleries as the mood struck us.

A young man standing in one gallery doorway leapt out at us. “Come in here! You’ve got to see this!” he exclaimed to me urgently. He took my arm and we followed him, giggling, into a room full of people and art. He insisted, with fervent, slurred speech, that I admire not the art but the walls and the displays and the sunken rivets that held the displays together. He was an architect, he told me, and he had designed and built this space.

He invited us to drive with him through the city—his luxury tour bus with a full bar was awaiting our pleasure, he said. We agreed, and climbed aboard what turned out to be an old school bus converted into a ramshackle support vehicle for his brother, a bicycle racer who had retired just a week ago. A group of laughing, dauntingly attractive adults were passing around a bottle of tequila. The architect passed out immediately, and our first stop was to drop him off at his house; then Anna and I were whisked off to a bar and another bar and finally a club where we danced until early in the morning.  

After I returned home, the architect and I exchanged a few emails. He asked what objects were important to me, and I sat in the rocking chair in my sparsely decorated studio apartment in New Haven and anxiously considered how to reply. The only thing I could think of that really made me happy was the old three speed bicycle I’d recently salvaged from my parents’ garage. This seemed cool enough to share with this mythical figure out of my dreamy adventure the week before, so I typed it out and hit send.

In exchange, he told me a story: There was a famous architect who used to ride his bicycle around the city and shout at people walking past that they were going too slowly to truly see the world around them, and insist that they should get bicycles too. Bicycling’s speed and full field of vision provided, he believed, the only way to truly take in a city’s landscape.

Our correspondence quickly dwindled, but the story stuck with me. The email is long gone and now I do not remember the bicycling architect’s name, if in fact I ever knew it. Many years later, after technology made such questions askable from your phone while waiting at the dentist’s office, I searched, but found nothing. This one bit of data is lost, or at least hidden from me, amid the white noise of the information superhighway, where searches for architects and bicycles turn up hundreds of thousands of results, impractical to sift through.

Or perhaps this information was never converted to searchable text. It could exist in a dusty book, or it could have been a fourth- or fifth-hand dinner party anecdote. You used to get all your cultural information from sources like this, gaining access through the accidents of history, privilege, and character that led you to be in certain rooms at certain times with certain other people—“moving in certain circles” is the phrase that spatially describes how you used to learn charming anecdotes about quirky architects. In this case, that must still be how it’s done.

It’s possible that I can’t find a trace of this story because it isn’t true. Mythical and nonfiction stories alike are created in the same way, based on a foundation of truth or hope or fear and elaborated within a structure, the way you walk down a street when the street is there, or into an art gallery when the door is opened for you. Given different structures, different storytellers, New Orleans is not a magical domain of joyous public life and civil society but a squalid, corrupt, crime-ridden hellhole. Both these views are true; both are false. Maybe the bicycling architect himself was an invention, one of the rivets that held together my drunken architect’s imagination, as true and false as the promise of the luxury party bus, and as whatever it was he told himself about me that spurred him to pull me briefly into his world.

The possibility that this story is a myth didn’t occur to me for 15 years. But by this point, it doesn’t matter. The myth is ingrained. I’m living out the bicycling architect’s mandate. My work as a writer and activist is to provide a new set of myths, a new framework for both seeing and imagining the world. And while I don’t yell at passersby to get bikes (tempting as this sometimes is), I do spend my days trying to share what I see from atop a moving bike, and the vision and hope that this view gives me.

Starting a century ago, but particularly in the last 15 years, we’ve rebuilt much of our world for cars. Travel just a few miles from the center of New Orleans, or any other city for that matter, and your view from a bicycle becomes a terrible vision of apocalyptic proportions. A landscape built for cars can only be taken in properly at automotive speed; at best it is a rhythmic blur of branded shapes and colors, big boxes and parking lots. As we increasingly build and live and work in this type of place, finding the sort of human scale encounters you might get walking through a New Orleans neighborhood is like trying to access a specific story by googling two common nouns.

Getting on a bicycle in a world built at human speed is one of life’s chief pleasures. Searching for information on the Internet often gives me that same feeling of access, mastery, openness, adventure as bicycling down a street that’s designed to make it easy—until I can’t find something. Then all I can see is a world of barriers of spam and nonsense. Biking in a world built for cars is the same way. The view is terrible but valuable, providing a first hand view of the cracks in the landscape we have built. The view from a car is a false story about the world—you see the major landmarks truly, but the details are omitted and along with them the potential for interaction, empathy, human-scale encounters with the other people who fill the street. On a bicycle, you can see the rivets as well as the artwork, and perhaps this is what makes it the ideal vehicle of an architect, whose livelihood depends upon appreciation and need for such details.

It isn’t just architects who rely on our ability to roam about with our eyes open to the world’s details and stories. The wide-eyed twenty year olds of the world, like I was, need spaces where people can freely mix on a human scale, where the white noise of strip malls and information highways can be parsed down into anecdotes and encounters. This is where coincidences are made, where myths are formed, where your whole life can be shaped by a sunken rivet and a made up story.

Special features within existing architecture can impact how you experience the rest of your life outside the space. For me, I keep a shelf of natural wonders. I found a simple piece of wood on the street in Capitol Hill back when I lived in Seattle, and impulsively brought it home.

I'm not sure where the idea that it would be my shelf of natural wonders came from. Maybe from those 18th century curiosity cabinets? In any case, once I had this space in my home, I noticed that I became more aware of the natural wonders in my environment.

A stone sparkling with mica came back from a backpacking trip with my sister in the Great Smoky Mountains, near where I grew up. On a foggy Northern California beach I instinctively put two little seaweed floats in my jacket pocket. A tiny canoe of a seed pod in Phoenix.

Sometimes the natural wonders are fragile or don't last long. Flowers wither, sea creatures sometimes mold, brittle leaves crack into tiny pieces, a huge cone from a spruce warms in the heat of the house and explodes into sharp petals.

Sometimes a visitor connects with one and it's time to let it go to a new home. The shelf is constantly shifting and evolving, as with the rest of my life, things must leave to make space for new things to come in.

The Pacific Northwest has so many cones - I doubt I would have noticed them half as much if this shelf at home hadn't been keeping me on the lookout for new types that I hadn't seen before.

You could built a shelf of natural wonders yourself, you know. Clear off a windowsill or existing shelf. Or keep an eye out for wood and build one like I did. And after you've installed it, go outside and find that first thing. A stick, a twig, a stone, a leaf, a feather.

Pacific Northwest Pinecones - Amelia Greenhall

“Put on a mask, as it were”  

from  Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Before you leave at morning break

Put on a mask, as it were.

Before you leave for bread to break,

Put on a mask, your glory secure.                


Like the façades of cathedrals of old,

Arrange your features as you think you’re told.

Put on a mask, that you weave,

Whether or not you intend to deceive.


Your face tells us stories with great detail;

You’re commissioned to guide the faithless well.

So in you we place our hope and trust,

Don’t disappoint these collections of dust.


Put on a mask, won’t you now,

Adorn with gold leaf your arching brow.

Prepared are we for the splendor inside,

Unless your façade has something to hide.


So project what’s behind your lustrous screen;

Or, are you simply a set, a mere display,

Whose glossy veneer can be stripped away?

Such cheap productions are too lightly beamed.


Now if you’re requesting we worship here,

Let your face be a mirror, or I fear,

Your artlessness will be your fall,

Redemption will be truth to all.


Let fall your mask, if you will,

Disappoint us with your tricks of ill.

Face to the world, set in stone,

Your covenant will be your bones.

I reached a full sprint in my business suit and running shoes, imagining a crankshaft, subordinate to the pistons and cylinders, spinning the flywheel. I kept my strides high and long, coasting over the incessant parade of cobblestones that undoubtedly ruined the escape of many of my pursuants’ previous victims. The three were fast, not used to losing the chase--though I doubt they were used to a chase at all. Most the other businessmen of Puerto Madero would have handed their wallet over within ten seconds. I bet a few had run, and the trio had quickly pinned their victim down and used their knives to remind him not to run next time. They’d give him a kick, too. They’d see some blood before taking his iPhone and every last moneda.

This time I kept all my blood circulating inside me, the red and purple flooding in and out of my wrists, my temples, my lungs, supplying and depleting my components. My tie flapping behind my shoulders as I roared past the heladería, the fruit stand, and the cartoneros pushing their rusted-wheeled carts and clinking glass bottles. Their eyes lifted from the trash bins and followed me for the twentieth time, wide and dark and confused ever still.

The steel cranes and glass skyscrapers were the backdrop to the freeway below my feet. Across the water the towers rose row after row, their infinite repetition interrupted only by the bridge’s fierce white point that emerged from the boulevard’s trees. I took a sharp right, my torque converter spinning. My muggers whipped around the corner, and I increased my lead from four to five meters. I lengthened my stride, let my heels hit the ground for the first time in a minute. I thought in rhythms governed by my exhales. The transmission churned phrases that kept me focused, kept the fear out.

If I could just make it to la Puenta de la Mujer,

they’d stop chasing.

It’s too exposed;

they’d never follow.

They’d think I’d yell, and the police

on the other end

would turn the table.

They’d radio the police

on the other side,

ambush them,

turn the predator to prey.

But I’d never yell; that’d ruin the fun.

A stitch clutched deep in my torso while sweat flowed from my hair, a sign for my radiator to kick in. I kept my arms pumping, reminding myself of the alternative evening: a lonely, spartan apartment, a bottle of fernet, five empanadas. I remember those nights in my first month, taking a break from Youtubes on how cars work to look out on the city from my apartment window. The city lights were miniature stars, each with its own gravitational pull, sucking people and cars and monedas toward it, day after day, night after night.

Ten more strides, and I was on the bridge. I felt myself downshift, coast my way to park. My throat expanded with each breath; my spark plug diaphragm exploded my exhales into the muggy night and charged me across the bridge until I spun around to see the hunters fade into the black to prepare for another hungry night. This was what victory felt like.

I checked my watch. They had chased after me for a full two minutes before giving up. Most in their line of work hadn’t bothered after thirty seconds. This was my longest chase since the first time I donned tennis shoes and stepped out into moonlight with five monedas, keys, and a determination to end the toxic boredom that collected in my apartment like exhaust in a closed garage.

I bent over the  railing, panting, gazing at the skyscrapers and stars echoing in the rippled mirror below. Sweat fell from my brow and splattered like oil stains between my feet. From my jacket pocket, I removed my weights, two Quilmes bottles. I set one on the ground and cracked open the other. I held my beer up with my sweaty and scarred right hand to toast this great Janus of a city, with its wealth and poverty, its monuments and ruins, its storms and fair winds, its victims and endless blocks of thieves.

I first discovered the power of architecture in Florida, where my sprawling extended family used to gather for summer beach vacations. The thirty-or-so of us would pack into three or four rented houses for a week of family bonding over card games, beach hangouts, and dinners. Each year a different one of these houses would become The Place to Be.

These gatherings had representatives from every part of the political spectrum, with ages ranging from newborn Baby Liam to “Happy 80th Birthday!” Grandpa Leo. Throw into this mix a few vague, deep-seated grudges based on who bullied whom as children, and you couldn’t get the group to come to consensus on anything. Yet, before Day Three, somehow everyone would have tacitly agreed which house to focus on for that year’s family gathering.  As a kid, I struggled to comprehend what force could have enough power to unify this unruly group.

It was the houses themselves that had this effect. Each year, the group of Zahners had the same goals: be near the action, hang out with your favorite cousins, and play lots of cards.  The house that best accommodate these goals rapidly became The Place.

This simple revelation first opened my eyes to the power of architecture. If the layouts of houses could hold such irresistible sway over a group as vigorously stubborn as my extended family, what other effects did architecture have on our lives?

How Engineers Think about Buildings

I had a structural engineering professor who liked to say, “Engineering design is not ‘How big is the beam?’ but ‘Should there be a beam?’” That is, while a building’s structure is governed by building codes with thousands of prescribed rules, the structural engineer’s main concern is not the mere verification of these regulations. After all, it is much faster and cheaper for computers (or interns) to plow through this litany of requirements. What, then, is left for the structural engineer?

The answer lies in the structural engineer’s most fundamental tool: the concept of a “load path.” The idea is simple: how does a force, exerted somewhere on a structure, make it to the ground without breaking anything? For example, consider the load path for the weight of a Zahner cousin (let’s go with Beth) playing cards in one of those Florida houses. Beth’s chair is sitting on a hardwood floor.  The boards in the floor distribute the weight of her and her chair to the closely spaced wooden beams below. The ends of these beams rest on the basement walls, which in turn sit on the house’s concrete foundations. The foundations bear on the soil below, transmitting the weight of my cousin (and everything else in the house) down to the earth itself. The load path, then, for any force on that floor is:






Now let us consider a less obvious example: Beth, sitting in the same chair, but this time on the seventh floor of a medium rise building. This building has yet to be designed, so there are many potential load paths that could keep Beth up in the air. She could be sitting in a much taller version of the same wooden house with the same simple load path. Alternately, she could be on a concrete slab which hangs, like the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge, from huge cables supported by even larger steel towers. Both these options, like an infinity of others, are perfectly valid.

However, each choice of load path has its own consequences. There are engineering consequences: a seven story building sees a lot of wind, so what happens in a big storm? Will Beth’s perch behave better in an earthquake if it the floor is lightweight wood or heavier (but also sturdier) concrete? How do you connect one giant beam to another anyways? Then there are architectural concerns: while a seven story tall stone pyramid would be an extremely stable base on which to play Spades, the architect’s vision for the ideal lobby may not call for a blank wall of stone. Finally, monetary cost is almost always a concern to the one footing the bill. How difficult (and thus expensive) will it be to build? Is there a different option that would use less material?

The structural engineer’s job is to select load paths out of this jumble of possibility and consequence. Once a load path is determined, a computer can analyze it and optimize every link in the load-path chain; to use my professor’s terminology, once the engineer has answered “should there?” the computer handles “how big?”.  Thus, the engineer’s primary challenge is developing the inputs: of the infinite number of ways beams, cables, slabs, columns, and trusses could be organized to support Beth, only one load path will best satisfy the owner and architect while still maintaining general compliance with physics. Design, for the structural engineer, is finding that best solution.


Rem Koolhaus and Joshua Prince-Ramus’s Seattle Central Library has evoked a tremendous public reaction since opening in downtown Seattle in 2004. Some hate it (it looks nothing like a traditional library: way too modern) and others love it (it’s very modern: it looks nothing like a traditional library!), but no one doubts that it makes a powerful impression. What role did the structural engineer play in the creation of this Seattle landmark?

With the Seattle Central Library, the design team sought to provide Seattle with a building that, like the best of those Florida houses, would draw people in and provide them with a focused place for interacting with each other. The centerpiece of this strategy of community involvement is “The Living Room.” The Living Room is the first place you come to when you enter the library from 5th Avenue. The architects envisioned the Living Room, like the common rooms of those Florida houses, as the center of the action.  Unlike the common rooms of those Florida houses, this Living Room covers nearly an entire city block, with seven floors packed with books and people above.

However, when you first enter the Living Room, you are oblivious to all this weight. In fact, all you see is open space and natural light from the glass walls and central atrium, with only four or five thin columns scattered around the edge of the building. How was the design team able to achieve this sense of openness and light given the physical mass and weight of the floors above?

The answer lies in creative load paths. Let’s move Beth’s card game to one of the study tables hidden within the stacks of the “book spiral” section of level seven. As before, the weight of her chair goes from floor to beam. However, at this point the load path diverges: instead of simply moving down walls to the foundations, the force in the beams transfers to gigantic four-story trusses ringing the outside of floors six, seven, eight, and nine. These trusses gather up all of the load from these four floors and concentrate it into one or two points on each side. Slender steel columns, sloped to match the facade, support these few points, carrying the concentrated load down through the atrium and past several other floors to the foundations beneath the Living Room. By supporting the whole middle section of the library on those few steel columns, the engineers managed to essentially sneak all of the weight of the shelves above down through the Living Room without hurting the architect’s vision of openness and light.

Developing this unusual load path was an iterative process involving many rounds of collaboration between architects and engineers. The architects knew what they wanted: an airy central space with the stacks hidden above. Engineers are problem solvers: they knew there was a way to turn the architects’ vision into a buildable reality. As the design evolved, the engineers helped inform the architects on the many trade-offs presented by different load paths. For example, the four-story trusses that encircle the middle floors only work if the edges of those floors all match up. These trusses help reduce the number of columns going through the Living Room so, since a minimally obstructed view from the Living Room was one of the architects’ first priorities, they chose to align the middle floors. As the design progressed from rough concepts to its final, ready-for-construction state, the architects and engineers made hundreds of these types of decisions.

This is a gross oversimplification: I didn’t even begin to describe all that thought given to what happens when an earthquake hits and all of those books start shaking. If you’re ever in Seattle, swing by downtown and I’ll give you a full hour-plus tour of how careful engineering helps achieve the architects’ goals for the library, sometimes by hiding the structure and other times by putting it on center stage. Until then, consider this the thesis of this essay: architecture has power, the realization of ambitious architecture often requires talented engineering, and thus the role of the structural engineer is to facilitate the creation of powerful spaces.

Listen to the song, as performed by the The Warren G. Hardings.

Come down, come down

From your hide away.

It’s time to come inside.

I know you’re tired and it’s getting late.

Come in. Say goodnight.

I think it’ll be’ll be alright.

Treehouse, treehouse,

Come on, keep me safe.

It’s a big world outside

But with you I can hide, I can run way,

And not have to hear them fight.

So I’m not coming down tonight, coming down to night.



I said no!

No! Oh no.

My child, sweet child,

You’ll not be denied.

Come here so we can play.

In my walls the big world can be locked outside

I’ll keep your fears at bay

So you won’t have to hear her say, hear her say,



I said no!

No! Oh no.”

Come down, come down

From your hide away.

It’s time to say goodnight.

I think it’ll be’ll be alright.