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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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Body Respect

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Disclaimer — one author of this book is named Linda Bacon, PH.D. Chuckle chuckle…

To all my friends who are wearers of white coats — in and out of med school, residency, you name it, I encourage you to give Body Respect a gander. It will expand and challenge your thinking on the much-ingrained “obesity epidemic” and the most authentic, productive definitions of health, whether or not you ultimately choose to accept some of its rather radical suggestions. For the average citizen, it puts forth a lot of radical information about what it means to have a healthy relationship to food. I found much of the information comforting and affirming, some it a little scary, but always grounded in solid research. Here are a few tidbits of what surprised me:

According to this source, BMI — Body Mass Index — is not the end-all, be all health indicator that it’s cracked up to be. Currently anything above 25 is categorized as overweight, when health risks don’t really kick in until much higher than that. The U.S. set its standards for overweight and obese according to international standards, which were heavily influenced by pharmaceutical companies selling prescription weight loss pills.

This article recently published in The New York Times about the Biggest Loser corroborates a lot of what Body Respect says about weight management. Essentially, there are a lot of unconscious forces at work in your body — for example, gut bacteria — that keep your body working to maintain a certain weight, a weight that may not match your desire for your high school figure or what you see in airbrushed magazines. So, treating your body like a machine — calories in, calories out — works in the short term, but then your body will react and try to recalibrate to its desired weight by increasing your appetite, slowing your metabolism, etc. This isn’t to say don’t cut calories to try to lose weight, but it does help explain why our weight loss efforts are often so short-lived. And it’s good to keep in mind when pursuing that ever-elusive weight loss goal in a healthy way.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion put forth by the authors of Body Respect is that health is achievable at a variety of weights and a variety of sizes. The authors view fatness as a form of diversity that deserves the same respect as race or ethnicity. They also delve into some interesting explanations of why “fatness” is their preferred term for describing large people with respect. My mind immediately hearkens to a picture of a very fat teenager dressed to the nines to celebrate her prom, which recently made the rounds on social media. I happened to have just finished Body Respect when I overheard several of my students throwing in their two cents about the photo — “At some point if you’re that fat you deserve to get heat; you need to do something about it” “Well, sometimes it’s a thyroid issue…” and I found myself struck by the overhaul of cultural beliefs that would need to take place if I tried to articulate the more accepting perspective of these authors…

The authors also have some pretty radical research findings to combat the view that America is suffering from an unprecedented “obesity epidemic.” Like I said, radical — all kinds of public platforms teach us that a lower body weight = good health. And fat bodies being an accepted form of body diversity? That can be a hard pill to swallow. I encourage you to read the book for yourself to make your own sense of these claims, but for now, I think it’s a healthy step forward to develop respect for our bodies, as they are, and to distinguish between being healthy and a size [insert your preference].

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