Diversity in the Culture

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Diversity in the Culture

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Sustainability springs from pure necessity often times, it appears in the least likely places.  Maybe it’s something created over time or maybe set in motion.  In its purist form, sustainability might be considered a historical mother of invention for the practical.  Solutions define a new direction, a new way forward.  I see this throughout the “Developing World”.

On my bus trip to Odessa from Kiev, though the heartland of “The Ukraine”, you see endless rolling fields planted with young bright green crops in neat rows as far as the eye can see, to the horizon.  Never do you see a single building like a barn, outbuilding, house, shed, windmill, or structure of any kind.  Ever!  The local population lives in sparse villages complete with Le Corbusian high rises looming like citadels on the horizon.  The result of Stalin’s collective farms no doubt, now swallowed up by similar mega agri-businesses as we have in the US.  When Stalin created those Soviet Collectivas  just before WWII with horrific results, the Soviets considered the consequences for the natural environment more than the people.  It was a new social order, with new directions set in motion.  Concerned for the diversity of the environment, its health and ability to thrive, they created long, straight, narrow swaths of forest dividing the massive fields into sectors.  Those linear forests as boundaries now almost a century later form a dense canopy of undergrowth and habitat for all sorts of wildlife; like interconnected fingers teaming with biodiversity stretching across the landscape.  These practices continue today within the massive agribusiness farming.  “Sustainable Collectivism” created a thriving habitat interjected into the mono-culture of industrial farming!   Even the Soviets knew that diversity was sustainable!
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Architecture and Sustainability

While we in the US and Western Europe try to figure out how to use less and lower our impact on the planet, places like Eastern Europe, just now awakened by the internet and rapidly changing politics, want more from the less that they have.  This may define the fundamental schism between our two worlds and a rapidly expanding one at that!  I’ve mentioned this in greater detail in this blog below, but if you go to the website Global Footprint Calculator  and take that quiz, you’ll find that we in the US mostly live as if there were 5 or 6 planets!  You’ve probably heard the statistic that in the US, 5% of the world’s population uses 24% of its resources. World Bank Development  Maybe it’s one of the fundamental issues of this crazy Presidential election…the argument of who we are as Americans?  Which direction should be taken from here, given that many are so disillusioned with the current political climate at all levels!  Let me sully the word sustainability a bit further…is our way of life fundamentally sustainable on all levels?

Who was it, I believe Joseph Kennedy that in 1929 was having his shoes shined, and the boy offered up some pop stock tips, to which Kennedy later said…“When my shoeshine boy starts offering stock tips, it’s time to get out of the market.”  He immediately withdrew his investments just before the crash reasoning that when everyone is doing it, it’s time for a change.  Kennedy’s Stock Market Quote.  We in hold onto the same ways of developing our cities and modes of transport, to the same solutions to improve our cities and way of life, our literature discusses the same concepts of society, investment and the environment.  We’ve defined our way of doing things by the way we’ve done them while creating the American Dream!  It may be time for a change.

Our continuing approach to city and architectural development in the US, the fundamental principles and concepts upon which we’ve invested all of our post WWII city development remains unsustainable!  We continue to build bigger highways, making them wider only to be choked immediately after opening.  We devote ever more space to parking and automobile infrastructure in our cities and continue to create endless settlement patterns of suburbs upon suburbs ad infinitum while many urban centers languish in slow decay and neglect.  The rings of development expand outward as the inner city cores become Rust Belt hulks.  Satellite cities now surround many urban centers as a solution to urban blight.  Former great cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, St. Louis, Dayton, Albany, Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo, and dozens of others in and around the Rust Belt now require rebuilding and reinvention.  Our previous model is clearly unsustainable, our solutions more of the same!  Albert Einstein is the one credited with saying “If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got.”

Our challenge…how to redesign such places?  How to alter the way things work and move them forward into a new 21st Century city model?  What lessons may be gleaned from such drastically diverse places such as the Eastern Europe and the X Soviet Union, while realigning our future to a more sustainable approach to city designs?  What sustainable methodologies of relating to each other may be developed in our newly globalized society?  What new methods of diverse investment may be implemented to support new sustainable business concepts?  What economic and high tech solutions can we use in helping our increasingly fragile environment?  Eastern Europe was on top of the world a half a millennium ago up to only a century ago, right up until the First World War!  Former world powers now considered the “Developing World”.  Their past and present could be our future; their methodology for sustainable living offering valuable lessons for today.

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Eastern European Architecture and Cities

Architecture and city planning are direct results of the culture, politics and economy of any civilization.  Monumental architecture, architectural styles happen as a direct result of the successes of the society; creating monuments to its leadership, economic success and power.  From the earliest civilizations in places such as Suman, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, the architecture and city development created a living history of a society’s past, present and future.  Contemporary examples of historic references include the influences of Greece and Rome on architecture right up to today.  Of course!  A continuing architectural tradition defines a culture.  When a culture ends, when the politics ceases, when the economy dries up, so does the iconic architecture.  The icons however remain as a historic and cultural record, a language of reference.  For Greek and Roman architecture that repeatedly creeps into the architecture of many very disparate cultures, it’s a reference to power and authority through the forms and details of classical elements.  The Soviets utilized these icons repeatedly in every type of building right up to the closing bell to convey the power and stability of their new world order.  So much for that!  Historic preservation remains one of the cornerstones of architectural sustainability.  Historic architecture is what Eastern Europe and specifically Ukraine are all about.  Ukraine contains some of the purest, most untouched European architecture through history in all of Europe!

Little of the cities of Ukraine has changed since Perestroika in 1992 due to the lack of money and few resources to build.  The politics, institutions and business remain tied in knots, looking for a solution.  Most of Ukrainian cities’ architectural and city development remains frozen in time with much of the pre-WWII, 18th and 19th century architecture not only intact, but in its original condition!   During the post WWII era, historic buildings were patched back together, the scale of the destruction just too vast to do much else.  Historic buildings were not torn down, but rebuilt with a minimum of repairs and reconstruction.

New buildings to fill the holes left by war and to mark the new world order focused on Modernism, a new and up to date view of the Soviet Union!  Modernism was of course…modern!   It reinvigorated the war torn cities with a new social order for the cities!  Soviet housing blocks, many blocks long defined the new urban spaces.  Soviet grand boulevards, plazas, promenades, squares focused attention on the grandeur of the State.  Ukraine is currently marking time as their politics sorts out some fundamental issues.  With little money available for new building and most used for rebuilding and repairing what’s there, the historic city in all its layers and glory remains intact.  As the culture and politics remains in a holding pattern, the architecture remains a historical preservation architectural museum of the 20th Century, right up to the Soviet Union’s demise and into a quarter century of Eastern European independence.

Ukraine remains one of the world’s best living architectural museums and monuments to Soviet society.  Soviet style modernism with a distinctly Le Corbusian flavor interjects itself into historic city centers, outlying X urban rings, small towns and villages and landed like space ships in the endless velvety countryside fields.  Crumbling bridges and roads swoop through, around and over old historic neighborhoods and classical architectural icons and interject Soviet iconography into the pristine collectiva fields.  The new order of the USSR imprinted itself as dramatically on the built environment as in the daily lives of its citizens.  Huge, hulking, monumental, impenetrable, harsh, looming above everything in its path, the Soviet architecture speaks as clearly and loudly as Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev ever hoped to and for far longer.  And, it’s all still here!

While we in the US experimented with and miserably failed at modernist high rises housing and blocks in places like Cabrini Green and Pruitt Igo, the Soviets made the models work.  In many cases, our housing blocks were built as part of a mass urban renewal program in the 1950’s and 60’s to rid our city centers of degraded neighborhoods and blight.  Bulldozers were the answer then, tearing out our urban neighborhoods as the bombs had in Europe.  They were built as islands in a blown up urban core, without interconnections or social support.  The Soviets however made the model work…it still works!  Today’s Eastern European housing blocks are filled with working class and middle class folks of all economic levels, from all walks of life.  Shops and street vendors fill the ground level spaces, small shops and tables overflow with stuff everywhere.  People walk to and from the Metro or Trams and meet and greet and buy.  Kiev, a city the geographic size of Denver or Kansas City or Pittsburgh, holds over 4 million people.  It works and works well!  The entire city is a thriving conglomeration of diversity and interconnected systems.

The historic continuum of Ukrainian architectural masterpieces remains uninterrupted with ancient structures, forts, churches, monasteries, castles, Renaissance, Neo-Baroque, Neoclassical, Moorish, Ottoman, Neo-classical, Art Nouveau, Rococo, Art Deco masterpieces imported from foreign architects, all in original and untouched condition, unaltered by past or present reconstruction.  It’s entirely original, from the buildings to the streets, from the sidewalks and parks to the Orthodox cathedral domes.  Everything remains completely frozen in time and hence its charm and significance.

Driving through the countryside, bridge structures, bus stops, walkways, drainages, sidewalks, stairways, roads all of heavily reinforced steel concrete remains slowly rusting and melting from the saturating Ukrainian weather, half-finished by Soviet workers over 30 years ago.  Sometimes it’s not pretty and neat or all fixed up, but it is very beautiful!  Everywhere you see trees and shrubs growing out of the building cornices, window sills, pediments and rooftops.  You see occupied buildings with missing windows, doors, stucco, stone, brick, walls, floors.  You see Classical and Baroque stucco detailing and statuary falling off the walls and half eroded away, exposing the underlying skeleton and wooden lattice work backing of construction from 2 centuries ago.  Many structures and architectural masterpieces remain unoccupied with others half occupied in a minimum state of repair and use.  It is an architectural treasure of untouched masterpieces in every direction with the same urban patterning in place from 2 or 3 centuries ago.  It’s incredibly beautiful and busted up at the same time.  It’s original, untouched, broken and completely mesmerizing.

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