Grafting the Future

Bon's graft, affectionately known as "Leggy," posing at Studio 410

At the Hotel Vitale, they leave ideas rather than chocolates on your pillow at night.

I first stayed there in 2007 while in town for a conference that I’ll never forget, since I was accompanied by two notoriously cynical bad-boy co-workers. After a frightfully large sushi dinner at Ozumo the first evening, we decided that we needed cigarettes before bed.

Since none of us smoked, we wandered the streets near the hotel looking for a convenience store, pleasantly buzzed from the abundant wine that had begun flowing just after we landed.

It was one of those idyllic May nights in San Francisco: a block away from the Embarcadero, the breeze felt pleasantly cool and tickled our noses with the scent of brine; the air was wet and alive—humid with metrosexuality. After wandering several blocks of deserted streets, we found the lone Korean grocery store whose yellowed raceway sign was still illuminated.

It had been years since I smoked; I sputtered as I took my first drag, lit with those cheap Top matches in the yellow book that real smokers only use when they’ve lost their favorite lighter.

Steve, on the other hand, inhaled deeply, allowing the carbon monoxide to saunter deeply through his lungs like an old girlfriend. Tiny wrinkles drew at the corners of his eyes as he sighed and exhaled a cloud of smoke. He took another drag, grinning rakishly from behind his salt-and-pepper goatee, and exclaimed, “Mmmmm…. Cancer!”

I began to regret my tobacco-laced indiscretion as soon as I exited the elevator, knowing that I’d wake up with a bad taste in my mouth, no matter how long I brushed my teeth. After closing the hotel room door behind me, I sprawled on the bed for a moment, noticing a small robin egg blue square of paper on my pillow, something akin to a Crackerjack prize.

I carefully removed its perforated face to reveal a quote from Jim Ruhn:

“There are two choices. You can make a living or you can design a life.”

With a stale burnt flavor adhered to my tongue and the stink of smoke in my hair, I decided to tuck those poignant words away in my bag for future reference…and resolved never to smoke again.

That quote quickly became my anthem cry, since I was in the early stages of re-envisioning my life. It stood as a reminder that having a second chance was precious, that creating a new existence should be done with intention. I don’t think I fully knew what that meant then, but the words rang true.

Upon returning to Seattle, I taped the square to my bathroom mirror where it has lived for four years, moving with me from Belltown to Queen Anne. Each day as I get ready, that note is a touchstone; I re-read the words to affirm that even the hard choices are worth it. Instead of merely clocking in and out, I’ve dedicated myself to making something rich, complex, and satisfying—not just for myself, but in partnership with loved ones.

It sounds easy when I write it, however this approach of intention, once found, has utterly changed everything. It means that even small decisions are meaningful. Most of the time, those choices—while enriching and empowering—are far from easy. In fact, examining life more closely has made it undeniably more complex; the world is now made from millions of shades of gray where it was once black and white.

I think this is why successful architects are deliberate with details. Once committed, their lines become walls that support buildings—moving one beam a few feet affects the entire structure. There are no insignificant choices.

Conceptual drawings are where most of us, including architects, live comfortably: broad-brush notions of flavor and personality, the suggestion of where things might go rather than one particular decision that is, quite literally, set in stone.

A fatal design flaw or hastiness during construction can doom a building to an early demise, such as the McGuire high-rise on Second Avenue and Wall Street, slated for demolition after less than a decade. Thoughtlessness, distractions, shortcuts—these are things of potential disaster.

Design and construction equally depend on experts working with intention to create buildings that not only look beautiful, but can withstand time, weather, and catastrophe. So, too, are we the architects and contractors of our own lives, crafting our own foundations and walls from willpower and life experience, hoping for something lasting and real.

Yet, in spite of our drive toward perfection in creating something new, it is compelling and ironic that we are simultaneously attracted to old, time-worn places laden with flaws and obsolescence—dilapidated structures needing repair. Perhaps it’s because old buildings are like people, whose character derives from their patina—those that are too “squeaky” or sleek, too perfect to be interesting, leave us cold.

Like wine growers grafting new branches onto old grapevines, we are drawn to preserve our old building stock—an extension ourselves?—by grafting modern materials and finishes onto historic foundations, melding brick and wood, travertine and tile, education and experience, technology and touch.

An exquisite depth results from merging old with new; I believe it derives from our own sense of hope and self-preservation. The resulting urban grain is something that we sense emotionally; we’re drawn to the power of knowing that we can be repurposed, even if we fall victim to old wiring or rotted floors. There’s a sense that, even when our future seems unlikely, it’s never too late for a transformation to take place.

There’s something to be said for the grit and character that history and imperfections can lend—to buildings, to stones, and certainly to human beings. It’s a fine balance, though: surface flaws make us unique while structural flaws left untreated can become our doom.

That’s really the question, isn’t it—which is which? It’s impossible to determine merely by sight what is worth saving—not just buildings, but each other.

The most dilapidated-looking structure may contain better bones than the newest high-rise, which is actually falling to dust inside. The only way to tell is by looking behind the walls and testing the foundation; these elements are often the product of a million small choices made by a single individual wielding her best combination of expertise and intuition. Of course, it’s all a gamble, and sometimes, even the investigation itself can be more trouble than it’s worth.

I realized the other day that I no longer need a reminder to design my own life with intention, so I moved the quote from my mirror onto a page in my notebook. After four years, my craft has become second nature.

Like many before me, the next challenge is to build upon my strong foundation of experience, trusting that I know which of my own structures are worth preserving, which can be repurposed or restored by grafting something new, and which are ready to be gutted so that something wholly unprecedented can take their place.

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