Housing is Organic

Mammals need shelter. In this respect, humans are no different. Although there is a tendency to make a distinction between the needs of humans from other mammals, our fundamental needs are the same. It can be reasonably argued that human life is a more sophisticated process, but over emphasizing this notion often leads to the kind of hubris that is detrimental to society. A major source of the aforementioned detriment is the false belief that humans have the capacity to control complex systems. We must accept that there are forces beyond our control. Accordingly, we must learn to respond to these forces in an appropriate manner. The following is a brief exploration of the conflict that exists between the nature of human housing and jurisdictional policy.

Housing is essential to human life. Human life is an organic process with a number of continuous changes and adjustments that are made rapidly from one moment to the next in response to changes that occur within the mental and or environmental circumstances in which humans find themselves. The previously mentioned adjustment process also applies to housing, in that a family needs to modify their housing, in order to accommodate changes to its circumstances, such as; a death in the family, the addition of a family member, or a change to its finances. Conflict arises when jurisdictional policy is too rigid to properly deal with the dynamic nature of human life in general and housing in particular.

A number of people inhabit unpermitted buildings, or construction improvements that suit their needs, but are unable to bring these improvements into compliance, because local jurisdictional policy inhibits the process. There are buildings with a current use that is unapproved, even though the current use is better for all stakeholders, including the owner, the neighborhood and the city. In some cases even city employees will unofficially concede that a project is an asset to the community and as such, is very likely to be approved, yet the official process for doing so can be so costly, that bringing the building into compliance is unfeasible.

A major reason for jurisdictional inflexibility is due to their ignorance regarding the principles of economies of scale. There are many natural reasons why large firms have lower unit costs than small firms, but jurisdictional policy often places additional pressure on smaller firms, families or entities. A manifestation of said pressure can be observed in some jurisdictions, where the threshold fees charged for a zoning adjustment are not proportional to the scope of the project.  When an owner of a 2 unit building is compelled to pay fees comparable to those required of a developer looking to attain a similar zoning adjustment for a 20 unit building, this places an unfair economic burden on small operators. Should a retiree that owns a duplex and lives in one unit, while using the rent from the additional unit to get by, be kept in non-compliance because they don’t have the same economic resources as a big developer? The aforementioned scenario would indicate that at times the policy is substandard, not the building.

Most people would find it absurd to have a jurisdictional policy that regulates; when, where and how a bird should build its nest. This kind of top down management doesn’t work for birds, because a bird is privy to information regarding its needs, to which policy makers are unaware. The same scenario applies to people. Jurisdictional zoning policy that ignores the needs of families and individuals will lead to conflict. When good people break arbitrary laws to accommodate their needs it’s probably time to reexamine the policy. There are many millions of dollars worth of buildings in California that are not properly permitted due to toxic jurisdictional policy. Clearly some unapproved buildings and construction modifications simply need to be demolished, but there is a substantial stock of buildings that are both well built and good for the community. Local jurisdictions need to be open to assisting owners in bringing good buildings into compliance.

Aesthetics and Architecture

We are endowed with aesthetic sensibilities that are often difficult to articulate. Webster’s’ defines aesthetics as “the study of the mind and emotions in relation to a sense of beauty”. Our neurobiological processes relating to aesthetic assessments frequently cause us to provide inadequate explanations as to why we find something beautiful. Our tenuous grasp of aesthetics has caused many to work towards a better understanding of the subject. In 1795 Friedrich Schiller completed his essay “On the Aesthetic Education of Man”. In this work he elaborates on the meaning of aesthetics and its significance in society with respect to artistic endeavors. What follows is a brief exploration of the meaning of aesthetics and its implications for art and architecture.

A salient feature of aesthetics is its intractability with respect to language. It is often difficult to put into words one’s appreciation of a thing’s aesthetic qualities. In his book “Inner Vision”, neurobiologist, Semir Zeki suggests that our incapacity to use language in order to describe a thing’s aesthetic qualities is perhaps due to the fact that the portion of the human brain that deals with aesthetics evolved millions of years prior to the development of language. This seems to indicate that from an evolutionary perspective it was less crucial for our prehistoric ancestors to be able to explain why they liked something, than it was for them to take action in order to attain that which stimulated them. On occasion we become intensely attracted to someone, yet we are unable to clearly explain why. We are being compelled by subconscious cues, and the odds are that if these feelings exist then they probably provide or at the very least provided us with a survival advantage. In other words, if you are drawn towards someone or something, but you can’t provide an explanation for these sentiments; it does not automatically follow that there isn’t a good reason for your feelings. There might be a very good reason why you feel the way that you do, even if you don’t know the reason.

According to Schiller a thing can be evaluated based on four parameters, which include: physical, logical, moral and aesthetic. Schiller held that something can be aesthetically pleasing independent of the other three criteria. Aesthetic assessments differ from the first three criteria in that an aesthetic judgment usually pertains to a thing as a whole as opposed to individual aspects of that thing. This can be illustrated in evaluating the work of the composer Richard Wagner. A term often used in relation to Wagner’s work is gesamtkunstwerk, which means “artwork in its entirety”. In experiencing an opera, such as “The Ring”, one might enjoy the sound of the music, be dissatisfied with the logic and or moral tone of the work, and yet find the gesamtkunstwerk deeply moving. This is precisely the emotion that a great work of art elicits; it should be deeply moving.

The previously mentioned biological and philosophical aspects of aesthetics provide us with a basis for understanding our process for evaluating the buildings that we use. In assessing the quality of a building we can separate the buildings features into two basic categories: the tractable and intractable. The tractable consists of variables such as; the size and adjacencies of rooms, the integrity of the structure, and the comfort of the interior environment with respect to lighting and temperature. These are things that can be objectively evaluated. Accordingly, we can say with confidence whether the building has succeeded in meeting the requirements associated with these variables. However, there are other variables that can’t be evaluated as objectively, such as a building’s form, color and texture. The aesthetic impact that the composition of these elements has on the users of the building is intractable. All that can be said is that if a building user is pleased by the gesamtkunstwerk, then the building has succeeded within the context of that person’s aesthetic sensibility.

A building user might be unable to put into words why they find a building aesthetically pleasing. Contemporary society often regards those that are unable to convey their sentiments via language as unintelligent, but in some domains language itself is primitive in comparison to the information contained within our sentiments. If you find a building to be beautiful, but can’t say why, that’s ok. Trust your gut, because sometimes, liking something is reason enough.