Last night, the winds howled. We awoke to find that trees had fallen when velocities reached 66 miles per hour, and that outside Rochester, a woman’s death was attributable to the onslaught. On the opposite coast, the evening news showed children shoveling hail, a few short weeks after devastating wildfires had ravaged nearby swaths of Southern California, killing at least 22 people and destroying at least 3,400 homes. We seemed to be bookended by perils.
How ironic. In the post-9/11 era, when man-made dangers have tossed us about, we have hunkered down to the safety of the cyberworld, where no winds blow. Yet perilous natural events seem to be assaulting us on all fronts—earthquake, fire, hurricane, tornado, floods—with the reminder that Mother Earth is not benign, but an active, tempestuous planet, subject to internal pressure and solar storms. Despite our technological prowess and planning, no one can accurately predict where the next calamity might strike.
It may be time to return to building wisdom. For a decade, we have been focused on architectural niceties, building free-form castles and debating the relative merits of the latest theory, allowing our conversations to stretch to the esoteric-thin. Yet architects’ work must stand, and withstand outside forces as well, shielding us from natural and human disasters: The public health, safety, and welfare depend on our professional ability to provide shelter. How can we learn how to build more safely? Academic research provides case studies and analysis; legislation and codes outline minimal thresholds. Nothing, however, replaces common sense and experience, which we, the design and construction industry, must provide. We are not, after all, the first generation on the planet to build.
Take siting, for example. When shear winds tore across the southeast during 2001 and 2002, tall pine trees snapped and cracked, sometimes impaling the roofs of adjacent structures and imperiling the lives of the families inside. Earlier generations had avoided planting too close to home for just that reason: Trees can fall in a strong wind. A similar lesson, modified by the nuances of forest management, applies to the California brush fires.
Building wisdom, tempered by science, can come from earlier practitioners and even salty contractors who can show younger architects the ropes. Many of our most powerful lessons have come to us standing, chastened, in a construction trench under the glare of a builder who explained why a system would not work as drawn. Or from a local historian who knows that earlier generations avoided settling on an open patch of land subject to regular flooding. These human lessons round out our education and continue throughout our lives, if we are given the chance and seek them out.
Schools of architecture have already established programs that allow students to wield a hammer on actual projects. On graduation, however, the hammering stops. Because contemporary office practice focuses on the production skills of gifted architecture graduates inside the office, we have a professional obligation to the next generation to shake our offices loose. Although the IDP program already requires it, we must insure that every young architect be freed from the computer screen and sent regularly into the field to observe construction. Only by seeing our work take shape and confronting the multidimensional, often conflicting demands of the real world can we hope to make better, more secure structures.
No code, no database will ever substitute for our professional concern for our clients, particularly for their well-being and safety. However, genius is not required to question whether we should build where the land burns or atop a geological fault. Architectural skill and human experience combined can lead us all to higher ground and away from peril. Human beings have made our contemporary world dangerous enough, but we can make it a safer place. That’s building wisdom worth practicing.