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Building, Literally and Figuratively

My dad wrote this article the other day and it moved me. I want to share it with you:

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I usually write about leadership and business issues in the design and construction industry. Today, however, it’s hard to avoid commenting on public debates that challenge us in America and around the world. Some of them are about building, literally and figuratively.

Architects love walls. They’re fundamental in what we do: outside, inside, tall, short, transparent, opaque. They shelter us from heat, cold, and rain, separate things that need privacy within buildings, and provide all kinds of opportunities for interesting design statements. They hold things up. They’re constructive and valuable.

Walls in the political sense have a less useful, more insidious meaning. We’ve become obsessed with defining ourselves, and dividing ourselves, from people and ideas that seem threatening. Different. Foreign – even in our own communities.

For example, my home town has 91 municipalities in a single urban county. They have interesting historical roots, but today they often consume our energy as people compete with each other, locally, rather than addressing the real competition for talent and investment that’s half a world away. It’s no surprise that the region isn’t growing.

On a national level the divides between backgrounds, races, and ideologies have never been sharper in my lifetime. We see threats all around us and are quick to create walls between us and “them” – the “other.” We create some of those walls with language and behavior, and in some cases they’re physical – like the idea of a kind of medieval barrier against our neighboring countries. We’re all trying to be architects now.

The idea of protective walls is certainly not new. We all know about the Wall of Jericho, the Great Wall of China, the walls and moats fortifying human settlements from hostile forces through the ages. The walls repelled the attackers, at least for a period of time, when the assault was based on numbers and brute force. That notion is quaint but irrelevant in our age of instant communication and global travel. We have strong national values but multi-national populations in much of the world.

I was reminded of the photo above, which I took on a London street in 1978. The subject is an immigrant, perhaps from Pakistan or India, holding a bright red can of Coke and with a bright yellow paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in his jacket pocket. I think I was struck by those colors, which worked well with my Kodachrome slide film. Only later did I think about the meaning of the image, with its convergence of contrasts between nationalities in England, races in 20th-century America, and the commercial symbols that transcend them all. Who knows what real barriers this gentleman had overcome and has faced since?

This week I had two Uber drivers on a trip to Dallas. The first was from Iran, a member of the Baha’i faith, who talked freely about his new political and religious freedom. The second was from Iraq; he apologized for his poor English but expressed pride that his three young children spoke perfect English and were teaching him. Both drivers expressed great appreciation for their opportunities in America. They love our country. Are they “us,” or “them”?

In The Language of Postmodern Architecture, Charles Jencks declared that modern architecture died with demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. In the same vein, perhaps we should hope that Ronald Reagan set the stage for a new generation with one of the best-known challenges of the last century: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” It worked. We should do as well.

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