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Earth Minus You = A Different Planet

I have seen many people, some very close friends and family, struggle with unhappiness, depression, and despair. I have heard the questioning of one's personal worth; the denial of one's impact on the world. This always saddens me, as an optimist and an ambitious individual who quite honestly doesn't understand the pessmistic outlook on life--and particularily the denial of self-worth--that so many unhappy people possess. I would, admittedly, be an awful psychiatric counselor. Despite my inability to relate with people's emotional and mental struggles, I am always able to recommend where such people should turn to in their times of depression and denial of self worth. You may be surprised to know that I send them to their local Blockbuster rather than straight to the mental health center.

Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life is a cinematic classic featuring the amazing talent of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in a profoundly meaningful film addressing the very question of one man or woman's impact on the world. It tells the story of one small town American George Bailey, who from childhood possessed the compelling ambition to see the world. He plans to become an architect and design magnificent bridges and skyscrapers everywhere. However, as George matures, he continues to extend help to whoever needs it at the sacrifice of his dreams: He puts off going to college until Harry graduates from high school to take over the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan Association, essential to many of the poor and disadvantaged in Bedford Falls. This noble decision leaves George a very unhappy man despite finding and marrying the love of his life and having children. Managing the unprofitable but vital-to-the-community Building and Loan company doesn't fulfill George's dreams of becoming a wealthy travelling architect. And with the stock market crash plunging the company into immediate and unexpected debt, George falls into a spiraling depression, eventually attempting suicide on a highway bridge over the icy waters of a river. Sent from Heaven is an angel named Clarence to jump into the river after him. He not only physically saves his life, but proceeds to take George on the invaluable journey through the world as if he had never been born. George's eyes are opened to the profound impact he has had on the world, as he witnesses a city overtaken by the cruel business tycoon Henry F. Potter. The city's poor are living in slums without the existence of George's generous service-oriented Building and Loan company. The town has become one of mass consumption and commercialization; the sense of community and friendly hospitality that George knew was gone. The old dilapitated mansion George bought and fixed up remained dilapitated in the George-less world. Clarence shows him his wife, who without George lives the life of a lonely librarian. His brother is dead since it was George who saved his life when he fell through the ice on a pond as a boy. This much-needed reminder of his self-worth and the amazing impact he has had on the world causes George Bailey to do a complete 360. He realizes that just because he wasn't making alot of money designing world-famous buildings and bridges, he was doing "big" things for the world just as he had always dreamed of doing.

The grainy black-and-white VHS version of Capra's story of George Bailey has been a New Year's tradition in my family for as long as I can remember. Until recently, I have never really realized the awesome personal lessons I have been given to kick off these almost 20 years of my life. This lesson of one's individual impact on the world is one that all people need to learn. Architects have it easy--they see the impact they have had on the world around them in quite literal, physical terms of building or landscape designs become reality. Others have more difficulty with this. That's why Ozayr's blog prompt is so interesting, asking us to ponder how we would still have an impact on our environment if we were released from the constraints of the architecture school program.

I think Capra's film gives me insight into Ozayr's provocation, in that no matter how insignificant one feels, every person--and, delving into today's lecture a bit, THING (something containing matter)--affects the environment in which we live. The way I look at it is that we are all members of the one living organism that is our universe; each of us contributes in some way, either large or small, to the betterment or detriment of our world. So, the very second upon release from the constraints of the architecture school program, I would start affecting the environment just by living and breathing. As long as I am in existence, I am affecting the world. But being the change-the-world kind of ambitious individual that I am, I would do much more than passively be alive.

I would impact my environment wherever I decided to go. In an ideal, utopian sort of situation for me, it would be traveling the world working on global development. To begin my work in development, I would definitely take a trip down to the American Gulf Coast and work on hands-on restoration of the built and natural environment there. But the environment of the Gulf Coast region won't forever be in need of alteration. So I would have to look elsewhere for a permanent place to have a major impact architecturally, physically, and artistically on the environment. I would likely travel to a third world country in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, or Latin America. In such a place, I could immensely impact the environment architecturally, culturally, economically, and socially in some pretty big ways.

For possibility's sake, let's say I choose to take my change-the-world ambitions, free from the constraints of the architecture school, to Liberia. Since 1989, the country has been in a constant state of flux, witnessing two civil wars that have collectively caused a devastated economy and a displaced citizenry. An economy in shambles has consequently created a country of poverty. Adding to this is another disheartening statistic. According to a UNESCO publication, 65% of primary-school-age-children attend school while 24% of secondary-school-age-children are enrolled. As I've discussed in previous blogs, education is something that I view as extremely important for the future of our country and for sake of human progress. I truly believe that addressing problematic education systems has the potential to drastically change the world for the better. A more educated person is more likely to contribute in a larger way to the betterment of his or her environment. More people impacting a bad environment in positive ways can gradually build a good environment.

Children at the Esther Bacon Elementary School, Monrovia, Liberia. November 2004

Children at Feed My People Sponsored Liberian School

African School Building, 2004 Aga Khan Award Winning Design

This award-winning design for an African School house exemplifies the kind of build/design work I would pursue with the purpose of impacting my environment in a positive way outside of the constraints of the architecture school that I am currently held bound by. I really appreciate the use of readily available inexpensive natural materials in combination with durable recycled steel in the construction of this school building. The building provides ample shelter from the elements and relief from the desert sun, giving the school children a decent learning environment.

Typical Existing African School Setup

The sight of these school "buildings" (and I really mean to emphasize the quotation marks) is deeply saddening to me. The fact that most existing Liberian school buildings are in the model of Laugier's primitive hut with no walls and little more than a thatched roof supported by a few sticks poses a serious design problem. In order to learn, children need a well-programmed school building in which to do so. As Christian Norberg-Schulz asserts in his article on "Place," a particular environment with a specific program requires a certain character and spatial organization. The primitive hut doesn't satisfy either of a school building environment's requirements.