Obvious Observatons in the Rain

Before we dig in this week, I will go to the mailbag and weigh in on a reader’s question sparked by last week’s post. He asks:

Q: If it is important to screen parking lots, dumpsters, HVAC units, then why do we encourage more on-street parking?
A: The party line is that cars on-street provide a buffer between pedestrians and moving traffic, are an efficient use of already-paved surfaces, and provide the opportunity for a few fortunate souls to park very close to their destination.

I suppose those who advocate for the screening of parking lots argue that a line of parked cars is not as visually offensive as a lot of them. I, for one, am not adamant about shielding parking lots. They are what they are, and if people can see them, then they know where to park. The other problem is in execution. Some guidelines call for walls or solid fencing- how is this any different from a building façade with no doors or windows? (which is detrimental to the pedestrian realm) Fencing that is visually permeable doesn’t achieve the goal of screening, and frankly doesn’t do much for pedestrian comfort…that’s all I’ve got on that…moving swiftly on...

I had a bit of a philosophical crisis this week. In absence of a more interesting idea for a topic, I will offer a bit of insight into what goes on in my noggin when it rains non-stop for a week. This all started when I was off on another rant about the appalling lack of decent Chinese food in the greater Chattanooga area.*  Yes, the curse of this blog is that even Chinese food causes me to think of urbanism... hang in there while I try to weave this thread…

Over the past few years we have seen the rise of the locavore phenomenon in food culture. This is essentially about placing high value on consuming foods that are grown or produced locally. A concurrent cooking philosophy has been to use as light a hand as possible in preparation- to let the inherent properties of the ingredients shine through. I wholeheartedly subscribe to both of these concepts.

They make sense to me for a couple of reasons. First, I grew up on BaBa’s food, and this was pretty much her approach to cooking. (Of course, growing up poor in rural Mississippi, her embrace of those concepts was borne of necessity and not a culinary ideology. Indeed, the concept of a "culinary ideology” would have flummoxed her- she would have said "Son, if you are lucky enough to have food, eat it and be thankful")  Secondly, my philosophy on building is very similar. I believe that buildings should be constructed of locally sourced materials, and that we should honor the nature of the building materials we use.

I hate, loathe, abhor, despise, and detest fakeness in building. Unfortunately, this is ubiquitous: concrete stamped to look like brick, cementitious siding formed to look like wood, EIFS shaped to look like masonry. This is lying. There is no such thing as good or bad building materials, only materials that are better suited to specific tasks and budgets. If the task and budget calls for cinder block, let the block express itself without shame. If you can’t afford brick pavers for your sidewalk, design the concrete in a way that is beautiful and honest rather than tart it up by stamping and coloring it to look like a brick (you’re not fooling anyone). If you want brick, use brick. If you want wood, use wood. If you want marble, use marble. If the realities of your project do not allow you to use the materials you covet, don’t put on airs.

The extension of this line of thought is that the buildings in a place should respond to the conditions of the place. Historic architectural styles developed because materials were assembled in response to local conditions and availabilities of materials. I am disheartened when I see local developers producing buildings in styles imported from the English, French or Spanish countryside for the sake of aesthetics. This again, is fake- architectural dishonesty.

So how does this relate to Chinese food? If one slavishly follows the maxims above, would we southerners be doomed to a life of fried chicken and collard greens? Is eating Chinese food in Brainerd analogous to building a fake half-timbered Tudor in Ooltewah? I hope not…or at least I don’t think so. I make peace with the seeming incongruity by making the rather obvious observation that food and building are two different things. While both contribute to the characteristics of a local culture, they do so in different ways. Food is a transient thing, it cycles far more quickly than human beings, which in turn cycle more quickly than the built environment. One can augment the food of a region with forays into other cuisines without necessarily undermining the food culture of the region. Meals last for hours, but buildings last for decades (I wish I could say centuries here). While food is about a place and supports the notion of place, the built environment is the place. And there you have it, when it rains for a week straight I come to the profound conclusion that food and architecture are different.

*Friends, if you know of a hidden Chinese gem that I am unaware of, please let me know and lunch is on me!


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