Monday, May 18, 2015


What’s the greenest way to build? Using natural, renewable resources? Using salvaged building materials? Or using the same old stuff you’ve always used, which some corporate PR firm has now managed to repackage as “green”?

These are all ways to profess greenness, some effective, some merely gestural. But by far the greenest approach to construction is to adapt buildings that already exist--and that’s one avenue in which we Americans still fall woefully short.
This building was demolished to make room for—
no kidding—a casino parking lot.
(Columbia Building, Pittsburgh, destroyed 2011;
courtesy of

We are, after all, a young nation built largely from scratch, and we consider it normal for our built environment to be in a constant state of upheaval. Here, it’s common for buildings to be demolished after fifty, thirty, or even ten years of use--and the expected life of buildings is getting shorter, not longer.

One study has pegged the average lifespan of American buildings at just shy of fifty years. Compare this to Europe, where a building’s life is measured in centuries rather than decades. The average life of an English building, for example, is 132 years. The typical lifespan of buildings on the Continent is probably even longer if we discount the effects of two World Wars. 

San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square—
a repurposed chocolate factory—
was among the first great
examples of "adaptive reuse".
America’s obsession with change, however, leads us to build quickly and on the cheap, since it’s assumed that buildings will be obsolete in a few decades anyway. Such thinking naturally leads to a vicious cycle of wastefulness: Because permananence is considered irrelevant, buildings are worn out in a few decades whether they’re actually obsolete or not. These, in turn, are typically replaced by structures that are even shoddier and more temporary--whether theoretically green or otherwise. 

Preserving and reusing older, well-built existing structures, on the other hand, is the ultimate expression of true green design, since it requires relatively little additional expenditure of energy when adaptation is required, and occasionally, none at all when it isn’t. 

The average old building represents a vast investment of energy--not only in the form of materials, but more importantly, in the form of labor (and by “old”, let’s assume we mean those built before World War II). It’s self evident that old buildings typically used more opulent finishes than their modern counterparts; they were, after all, built at a time when high quality materials had not been depleted and were still used generously. 
The crafts that built interiors like this one—
the Los Angeles Theater—are not coming back at
prices anyone can afford. 

What is less seldom appreciated, however, is that an old building also embodies an enormous storehouse of labor--much of it of a kind modern society can no longer afford. Many once-ubiquitous building trades have all but disappeared over the last century--from stonemasons to stained-glass makers, from plasterers to gilders--and the fruits of their labors remain in every extant building, essentially frozen in time. 

These skills won’t be coming back, except in their current status as boutique trades carrying astronomical costs. Hence, destroying an old building doesn’t just squander physical resources--it also negates forever a huge investment of skilled work that’s no longer affordable and sometimes no longer even obtainable. To my mind, this is a waste of nonrenewable resources more tragic than that of any precious material.

Monday, May 11, 2015


The "Psycho" house.

As Alfred Hitchcock well knew, nothing sets a mood of suspense better than a spooky old house. The brooding Mansard-roofed Victorian in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which still stands on the Universal Studios backlot, is probably the best known creepy old house in pop culture. But there are plenty of others: For instance, the eerily rendered Xanadu, home of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s milestone 1941 film Citizen Kane. The hauntingly composed images of Xanadu are so central to the story that they’re used both to open and close the film. 

More recently, there was the anthropomorphic house featured in 1979’s The Amityville Horror, perhaps the world’s only frightening Dutch Colonial. On the lighter side was the Addams Family’s eccentric television abode (another Mansarded and iron-crested Victorian, although, like Kane’s Xanadu, it was actually just a matte painting). 

Just what makes for an unnervingly spooky house? And mind you, we’re talking aesthetic creepiness, not pulp-novel style haunting. Back in the 1960s, old Victorians houses of the Gothic or Mansard variety were Hollywood’s standard issue for spookiness, probably because they were decaying and far out of fashion at the time. After their popular renaissance in the 1970s, however, those gaily-colored gingerbread houses had a much less sinister effect in the public mind, and hence Hollywood moved on to other archetypes.
Is this the world's creepiest Dutch Colonial?

A really creepy house usually has some anthropomorphic character--the vaguely hunchbacked, head-and-shoulders silhouette of Mrs. Bates’s house in Psycho, for example, or the diabolical, eye-like attic windows seen in promotions for The Amityville Horror, or the gaping mouth-like porch of Freddy Krueger’s house in Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Anthropomorphism plays an even bigger role in one of the scariest spooky-house films of all time, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). Here, the gloomy stone pile known as Hill House features rearing Gothic towers and cavernous window openings that eerily recall the empty eye sockets of a skull. In this case, Hill House was not just a matte painting but an actual English manor house called Ettington Hall near Stratford-upon-Avon. To get the eye-socket effect, director Wise used a special high contrast film to make the house's window openings seem black and empty (Ettington Hall seen in normal light looks considerably less diabolical, and in fact is now a popular hotel).

The Addams Family lived here—well, sort of.
It's only a painting, though it was based
on a real house in Los Angeles.
What makes Hill House so deliciously spooky is the fact that we never see anything more explicit than mundane parts of the house itself: a door swelling and bending as if under pressure from some terrible force beyond, or malevolent faces creepily emerging from the patterns in ordinary wallpaper. These nightmarish inversions of the ordinary, unlike the explicit fare of slasher films, are all the more frightening precisely because they’re so domestic and familiar. How many of us, as children, didn’t see faces in the wallpaper? 

The fact that we never learn just what malevelent force stalks Hill House in The Haunting only heightens its stature as one of the spookiest houses in pop culture. Just as in real life, we aren’t presented with neat conclusions--only more unnerving questions. 
Ettington Hall: Not so scary in the daytime.

As Alfred Hitchcock once put it: “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”