Thursday, December 30, 1999

Growing Home

"Technologies that can radically reprogram plant and animal cells can be used to create numerous proteins that have potential as building materials.  Recent successes in tissue engineering with growing bone cultures suggest the potential of bone as a new structural material."

- James Neal, "Architecture: A Visual History"

     There came a moment 5-10 years ago when I suddenly realized that the vast majority of buildings that would be populating the year 2000 had already been built.  That realization left me feeling rather cheated, deflated, and depressed.  The fact that much of what has been built since that realization first hit has been Colonial recreations, uninspired strip malls, and soulless cineplexes has left me feeling even worse. 
     It just seems wrong to this boy who thinks that architecture really should not have peaked with the New York World's Fair of 1939.
     Oh, sure, there have been a few exceptions, a few glimpses of a real future provided by such things as the Pompidou Center in Paris (opened in 1977) and Frank Gehry's acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (1997), but, really, that's not the sort of architecture we encounter every day, is it?  No.  Ohio towns and their sub-divisions continue to blend together like they have for many years.  The cast of Friends live in apartments not terribly different from the ones of That Girl and The Odd CoupleThe Truman Show may have been cutting edge in some ways, but its architecture was purposefully retro.
     Ho (damn it all) hum.

     So: Imagine my delight and surprise when I read the above quote in a book I picked up Monday on the close-out table of the very mall book store we visited before we toddled across the way for my wife's date with Mr. Salmonella.  I came across it just this morning and, combined with the buffering effects of time, it now seems as if her bout of food poisoning was a small price to pay for such a juicy piece of hope.
     In the delusional belief that there really was some necessary connection between our visit to that book store and our subsequent eating at an unhealthy restaurant/oil recyclers, I just want to say: "Thanks, Hon!"

     "I fail to see what's so delightful about that quote," my imaginary friend, Sylvia, took the time to telegraph me from her winter home somewhat to the south of my septum pellucidum just after I wrote the above.
     "Well, you see, Luv," I attempted to tell her exactly as if she really cared, "the whole thing instantly resonated with something deep inside me and inspired a wonderful panoramic montage of possibilities.  Just think about what it might mean if dwellings become more like living organisms and less like dead manufactured items.  Instead of hiring traditional architects and contractors when we want a house, we might just buy a seed and plant it.  Or break a shingle off a neighbor's place when they aren't looking and act innocent when a duplicate sprouts on our lot."
     "Sounds kinda slow," the ever-doubtful Sylvia opined.
     "Well, they could speed up the growth rate somehow, I'm sure.  If two microscopic cells can become a trillion-cell human being in 9 months, I'm sure we'll be able to get at least a garage out of two starter bio-planks in less time it would take the carpenters around here to pour a slab.  Biology, after all, works 'round the clock - and you never have to pay it overtime."
     "There are times when I really wish biology would take a vacation and not come back," Sylvia dryly intoned. 
     "There ARE times when it seems like it's performing like an auto worker at 4:55 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, but I'm sure a few twists of a wrench under the cellular hood will fix that," I brushed off her objection, uncharacteristically giddy with optimism.  "And just think: Once you have your house all grown up out of common soil and nitrogen from the air, it'll be easy to grow additions!  Power it with photosynthesis!  Have it self-heal when damaged!"
     "In a world with so many people unable to feed their children, don't you think it terribly selfish for you Americans to start thinking about acquiring houses with mouths?" she subtly demanded to know.
     "Ummm, I don't think they'll have mouths, exactly.  Certainly not mouths that would need to be fed anything more than tablesaw scrapes."
     "And will these houses need to be toilet-trained - hmmmm?!" she pressed on, starting to become a bit absurd.
     "I think the model to keep in mind is the factory farm, where the, ummm, leavings of one domesticated species can be confidently fed to the next with a minimal use of antibiotics."
     "WHAT?!" she exploded with far more force than I ever thought a woman confined to a wheelchair could ever muster.  "You're trying to tell me that MY house is going to be feasting on the shit of the one next door?!?!"
     "N-N-Not exactly, ummm - maybe this diagram would help...."
     "Keep your dirty pictures to yourself, Buster!" she waved me off.  "If my house is anything like my first two husbands, it'll run off with the first flimsy little tool shed it sees and I'll be out in the street all over again!!"
     "You certainly do have a way of making the prospect of residing inside a living, breathing structure less pleasant than my gestation had led me to believe it would be," I sighed.
     "Hey, I've come home to a sick cat one too many times not to wonder how much worse it just might be to come with my cat to a sick house," she chided me.  "You've just prompted me to think about it all a bit further.  For example, if you were to try to hang a picture on a living wall with hammer and nail, wouldn't that constitute assault?  And instead of tearing down old, dilapidated dwellings, wouldn't we have to start burying them?  Where??  How???  It was hard enough to get six pallbearers for my Uncle Seymour - and HE didn't even have walk-in closets!" 
     "I think somebody needs a foot massage," I "accidentally" let slip, loosening the strings of her high-top shoes and allowing my fingers to hurriedly end her rant.
     "Mmmmmmmm," she closed her eyes and mmmmmmmm'd, allowing me to return in peace to my fantasy of having a home office with soft, heat-producing walls, floors that are supposed to be hair-covered, and a charmingly non-rectangular entranceway eager to aid my arrivals and departures with natural peristaltic motion. 
     She smiled as my fingers fluttered across her waiting tarsals.
     I smiled as her silence allowed my fantasy to swell to incredible proportions and finally gave me a reason to look forward to the 21st century.
     Soon completely lost in our own worlds, it fell to our raspy little gasps to intermingle and become one somewhere far over our heads....

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(Carefully ©1999 by Dan Birtcher so as not to bruise the living word)