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Archive for July, 2013

Irish Vernacular

Dominic Stevens, an Irish architect, built a house for just €25,000.  He’s a proponent of what he calls the Irish Vernacular, a DIY, back-to-the-basics take on architecture in which decent housing is recovered as a product that resourceful individuals can create through self help and cooperation. Stevens’ is a small house, but it looks like a good deal for the price. (Although, I think I’d go for a more traditional visual effect.) The cost doesn’t include the land, but the footprint is modest. From his web page:

The model that we have become used [to] now places the house as a way of driving the economy – we build houses as a method of making money not in order to house people well. The vernacular tradition produces houses in another fashion, here people build their own house, not with help from the bank, rather with the help of their neighbours. The by-product of house production is an interdependent community, instead of lifelong debt to the bank.

The web page also includes instructions about how to build such a house. My favorite:

instruction

It’s interesting how much this concept overlaps with those that drove both the limited-equity (LE) co-op model from New York City in the mid-20th century, and also the prototypical Garden City model that (as noted before) the NYC LE framework so closely resembled. The difference here is that the cooperation proposed here is more organic, and personal, and therefore lacks the formalizing legal framework of the more ambitious co-ops of the past. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be made to work between less-intimate acquaintances with the introduction of certain contractual and property-rights assurances. The BBC also interviewed Stevens as part of a video report on alternative housing frameworks throughout Europe, including land-free boat housing that people have set up in the waterways around Amsterdam, and co-housing-type arrangements in both the youth punk scene and among upper-middle-class professionals in Berlin.

It’s also interesting how much this concept overlaps with the traditional American housing patterns of the 19th century. One thing I’ve learned from watching the Civil War lectures lately is just how much the Free Soil-Free Labor ethos in the Northern states was driven by the idea that — in the absence of slavery and its devaluing effect on labor — the vast expanse of the American continent provided an almost endless set of opportunities for anyone who was willing to work. In that concept, one can see the roots of various interpretations of the American Dream. But to appreciate the original democracy of its promise, in a time long before the New Deal or Levittown, one must also acknowledge that this dream would not be financed by banks or limited by zoning boards or designed by architects and planners with elite credentials. Instead, the small towns and urban neighborhoods along the westward-moving frontier grew because they offered a chance to combine free (or very cheap) building land with abundant, life-sustaining resources (farmland, timber, stone, etc.) and sweat equity — and enough individuals had the building skills to make it work.

A certain amount of this is not so long gone. My mother once told me that when she was growing up in upstate New York, in the 1950s, the men who lived on her block — all World War II veterans — worked together on building projects, taking turns to finish attics into livable spaces, and paving all of the driveways on the block. By the time I was growing up, the only house-skill that most boys seemed expected to learn was lawn mowing. Still, you figure things out. There’s a pretty interesting book called Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture that covers some of these concepts through a diverse collection of writings on folk architecture. I looked at it in the Rutgers bookstore last year, and I’ve been meaning to read it more thoroughly because it seemed to shed some light on the context that allowed for the variety and individuality of structures that characterized American building patterns pretty much down to the Great Depression. When one considers how banks and lawyers have managed to turn simple housing into both a major expense, and a key component of an increasingly calcified economic landscape, one can’t help but recognize the inherent power that exists in frameworks that would allow individuals to recover their housing options on more autonomous terms. And imagine the benefit to the economy as a whole if all of the rent-dollars and interest-dollars were redirected to more productive ends. There are a lot of interesting ideas beginning to bubble up. Stevens definitely has one of them.

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The Wall Street Journal has a disturbing piece by Radley Balko about the rise of military tactics in domestic US policing. While one can clearly see the need for certain police officers to be trained in these approaches to handle the occasional life-threatening crisis — say, an unfolding attack or a deteriorating hostage situation — there’s something sick about a legal culture that just sort of decadently slouches toward the use of military tactics for serving warrants or securing evidence against civilians, as a matter of expedience, or to reinforce its own psychology of power. What’s worse is the intimidation factor that these practices imply toward the general public. If the legal system needs to increasingly engage in this sort of violence as a matter of course, that seems like prima facie evidence that the system is no longer governing by the kind of consent and consensus that Holmes identified as the prerequisite of a legitimate body of law. Scary.

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I’ve been watching this Open Yale course about the U.S. Civil War, taught by David Blight, when I have a few minutes here and there. In the first few lectures, he goes into the regional differences that surrounded slavery, as well as what was at stake, legally and politically, in the fight over its westward expansion. Some of the narrative is a review of the basics, but then Blight builds a deep context for the dual sovereignty of federalism — and how much more of a cultural controversy it really was in the 19th century. So far, the course is really good.

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The Chronic Meltdown of Law

The New Republic has a withering piece by Noam Scheiber about the meltdown of the American law firm model. I saw a little bit of this first hand when I worked as a paralegal at a couple of the big firms in Midtown before law school — in particular, the incivility toward those of lower (usually chronological, but sometimes credentials-based) status, and the indifference of many of those who seemed to have any clout within the firms. It’s hardly news; these places have been hell for a long time. It’s just that the business model is now failing, and so it’s an economics story. And because (at least for now) there are fewer alternatives for lawyers who are not insane enough to go along for the ride, long term, the protests are louder. I get the competition in law, but the rest of this is just nuts. I mean, how does a profession that is so rooted in the humanities and that has a basic threshold requirement of critical thinking skills ever get to such a point?

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“A Chicago Every Year”

Over the next 12 years, the Chinese government plans to relocate 250 million people from the countryside to brand new urban developments, in order to build a new middle-class, urban consumer culture. These stories about planning in China are always bracing. There’s something deeply impersonal and anti-individualistic about the way citizens are treated like movable commodities. But, even so, contrasting the ambitiousness of the Chinese vision with the petty resistance to things as practical as affordable apartments and small business space in the American suburbs, I sometimes feel like I’m on the wrong continent for city planning.

Apartments in Suzhou, China. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Apartments in Suzhou, China. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

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