Open Book: Housing [Part 2]

As you can probably tell, I have a bias toward design, and the value that design has, not just monetary value, but cultural value, social value, value as only buildings can have, to shape and house and facilitate both our dreams and daily drudgery. It is not enough to simply build buildings. We need to inspire, or at least do our damnedest to, because to say something, say it in wood and metal and glass and plastic and brick, that is the whole goal, as far as I am concerned - to leave a place better than you found it, to leave a person's life better than you found it. "Did you fix more than you broke today?" my dad would ask me - that always stuck with me, as something salient, something prescient of who I would be. And by extension, if you do this each day, if you can answer "Yes" to this question, you will end up fixing more than you break in your time, however long or short. But it is not done in one fell swoop. It is done almost imperceptibly, by the minute and hour and day and week and year.

Is what we are building the answer? No. Is it a step toward an answer? We hope so. There are so many challenges with doing what we are trying to do - not just keep costs down, but squeeze every last drop of inspiration out of every dollar, and figure out how to do it better next time, and reach a wider audience, and design for people up-front, and help them secure financing, and so much more. And try to be transparent and open with everyone while we are doing it, and try to answer questions before they are asked. Are we going to build a whole neighborhood of shipping containers? Probably not. I hope we don't do the same thing more than once, because there are so many ideas that we want to test out, to show off to those who may not have been exposed to those ideas before - making connections is to preemptively or retroactively fix (depending on your perspective). Is it wrong to test these ideas out on the working class? I don't think so. Look at the glory of the stuff that has been built for people in Hale County Alabama by the Rural Studio. This place, this program, has been lighting a fire under my ass as an inspiration since the first time I heard an interview with the late Rural Studio founder Samuel Mockbee in 2001, heard him declare “Architecture is a social art. And as a social art, it is our social responsibility to make sure that we are delivering architecture that meets not only functional and creature comforts, but also spiritual comfort.” How can we bring this beauty and delight and raw energy and vision and imagination from the country into the city, to our city, and make it an elevation of what is already here, in brick and stone and wood and metal? Is that just experimenting on those who can't afford otherwise? I don't think so, because this, our small contribution to this discourse, comes presented to the community as only one of many options, alongside Habitat for Humanity, Lexington Housing Authority, the Urban League, as well as a bevy of for-profit developers in the neighborhood, with as many motives as LLCs, of varying levels of ambition, resources, and ability. So we are all working roughly at the same work. And we are all learning.

I grew up in a place that was very distinct, and I took great pride in that. I found myself gravitating to places throughout my life that I can take pride in, and found that people will take pride in place if that place can reciprocate, if people can be proud of where they live. I have learned a lot about place in my life. About the value of a front door. I learned that from Christopher Alexander and his Pattern Language. I learned from Pruitt-Igoe about what happens when you don't give people a front door. I learned the power of people taking ownership. I learned from the 2008 real estate crisis why having unique and distinct properties was valuable - because if every house looks the same and is the same and the only way you can tell on from the next is by the numbers next to the front door, then if the value of that one house type drops, they all drop. I learned that bigger is not better. I learned this from a lot of places. I learned this from Belgium, where people live in tiny houses in 13 communes that make up Brussels, with narrow stairways and tiny rooms, but they live in their downtown, in their city squares, in their parks, in the streets, on their mass-transit.

And I learned a lot about this place, about the history and the patchwork of buildings and roads that make up North Limestone, and how that road played such a major role in the history and development of the North End of Lexington. So what can we learn from both the national and worldwide precedents and best practices, and also make decisions informed by the regional character and local essence of this place? How do you balance what is cutting-edge nationally with what is appropriate locally? As far as I can tell, you just have to keep learning, and keep asking questions, even if they are hard. So here's one I have to ask myself:

Am I a gentrifier? Probably, by most definitions. I'm not from here, I am college-educated, I am white, I am male. But I cannot control those things. I can control the work that we do, and that, day by day, is how I'm trying to fix and not break, to try to be a part of the solution. I love this neighborhood both for what it is and what more it can be, and I am so glad to be a part of it, here and now.