Architecture, China, journalism, language

The Diane Dale Follow-Up at Greenbuild

Diane Dale and I encountered each other on the expo floor at Greenbuild last month. It was a Thursday afternoon, the 20th of November, and the conference was in full swing. We’d initially walked past each other without quite realizing it, but were soon standing together in the middle of one of the paths between the rows of exhibition booths. Scores of conference attendees streamed around us

Dale has worked with the architect William McDonough for several years. Since 2000, she has been the director of community design at William McDonough + Partners. Dale is of medium height, with blonde hair and rectangular glasses. She looks just like her picture. A couple of days earlier, she stood up during the question-and-answer section of the panel I participated in at Greenbuild’s International Forum. She didn’t have questions so much as comments, which I described in a previous post. In a nutshell, neither Dale nor anyone from McDonough + Partners, was especially happy with my FRONTLINE/World story on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village Project in China.

She started by saying she knew I had mentioned her on my blog. When I asked what she thought of what I’d written, she said she hadn’t read it (she later clarified that it was printed out for her). But she did want to follow up on some of the points I made in my blog post, and gave some additional information about the role of William McDonough + Partners in the Huangbaiyu project. She did most of the talking. Our conversation was probably about 20 minutes, maybe a little longer. I spoke briefly with Kira Gould, the director of communications for the firm, soon after, and then once more, briefly with Dale. For those interested in the details, I’ve outlined the points they made, as well as some questions and responses, after the jump.
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China, journalism

On Being Called Out

Yesterday was the International Forum of the gigantic Greenbuild Conference in Boston. The organizers of the forum invited me to speak and sit on a panel about New Communities in a green design context. My role was to discuss my Frontline/World story on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village. There were about 350 people in the audience, several standing along the back wall. I was on stage with Canadian developer Joe Van Belleghem, and the journalist Ken Shulman moderated. Joe and Ken each did a great job. I’m glad to have met them, and I enjoyed every minute that I was on stage with them.

During the question-and-answer portion of the session, Diane Dale, who directs community planning at William McDonough + Partners, stood up. She was well-spoken and gracious in many ways, but there was a sense that she was trying to call me out.

Although I think there may be an audio tape of the event, I caution that these are my recollections. I’m sure, once the tape comes out, we will all hear how inarticulate I actually was. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, I figure I might as well give a rough accounting for those who are interested. As several attendees noted after the exchange, there is always more than one side to every story.

Ms Dale introduced herself and said that she thought my presentation was not as critical as it could have been. She noted that her firm had been quite critical of the outcome and had learned many important lessons. She didn’t have questions so much as comments. The first of which, a big lesson learned, was the importance of translation–simply, good translation–which apparently hindered the effective communication of ideas and concepts.

In regard to the point of the yards being too small for animals, she noted that during the time of the design, SARS was floating around Asia. SARS, she reminded us, was a devastating, deadly illness. “They told us” that the animals would have to be kept separate from the houses.

And she seemed to question the fairness or purpose of this session because neither she nor anyone else from William McDonough + Partners was on the stage.

From what I recall, those were her main points.

I have a few initial thoughts that will no doubt be refined over time. Some of these points I managed to mention on stage; others have bubbled up since then, classic examples of l’esprit d’escalier. I neglected to address the SARS point while on stage, simply because I forgot. But that’s what blogs are for, I guess.

1. In regard to translation, two names immediately came to mind: Zhong Ping and Wang Miansheng. As far as I know, both are Chinese, native speakers. Both were employees of the China-US Center for Sustainable Development, which was the key coordinating organization for this project. These are people who have some influence within the organization and are familiar with the project, with China, with all the key elements of this effort. In fact, this is why I hoped to find Zhong Ping while I was in China (he was traveling); and asked to interview Wang Miansheng after returning to the U.S. (also traveling). To say that translation is a problem doesn’t jibe with having men like these on board.

Still, on the merits of Ms Dale’s translation point, I have to ask: if McDonough + Partners is a sophisticated design firm of international scope, why couldn’t they manage to hire one good translator in China? Hundreds if not thousands of other companies do it every day. I did it on a shoestring budget.

2. This SARS point. In the context of the Huangbaiyu story, this is news to me. When Ms. Dale says “they” told her colleagues about this design restriction, I’d like to know who “they” are. This issue is certainly not mentioned in the vision plan to justify the planners’ admission that “the yards may be too small to support the number of livestock that currently occupy many yards in the village.” My understanding is that this was written in 2004, or thereabouts, which places it after the main SARS outbreak. If SARS were a concern, why didn’t it say, “The yards have now been designed too small to support livestock in order to keep them away from humans due to disease concerns,” or something like that?

If this separation rule were an order from the central government, anyone familiar with the way things work in China will understand that just because the central government says it should happen, it doesn’t always happen on the ground, for better or worse. Had they ever heard of that?

For that matter, even if the animals were to be separated, what would be the method of taking care of them? Lone outposts of pigs and goats that farmers must trudge through the winter snows to feed and water every day? Should someone be posted nearby to guard them? Or would it be a single, collective space, where the community’s animals would live and which would probably begin to resemble a factory farm?

Frankly, I would have heard about the SARS issue much earlier had McDonough + Partners actually told me; but a year ago, they weren’t talking to me; before that, McDonough was publicly blaming the developer for the project’s outcome.

And in any case, as a journalist it’s not always enough for me to rely on what “they” tell me–it’s often better to just go and have a look myself. That’s why I went to Huangbaiyu rather than simply report on what McDonough + Partners might have told me here in America. I would hope a community designer would do the same: visit the place and take a walk around. It soon becomes clear that these farmers do live near and interact with their animals.

3. I think it’s perfectly appropriate that the USGBC invited me on stage to talk about this project in the context of my story. My reporting was fair and well-researched; the story is designed to give a look at the village and what contributed to the present outcome of the development. Another person who could deliver a fair, and even more thorough, analysis, would be Shannon May, the anthropologist who lived two years in the village.

That the McDonough people weren’t on stage does not seem especially critical in light of this. For what it’s worth, the fact that they did want a place on the stage suggests that they feel some sense of ownership or responsibility regarding the project’s outcome. The bigger issue this brings up is one of accountability, a point that is essential to my story. But if they wanted to go onstage simply to defend their reputation, that would defeat the purpose of the panel, because it becomes about them and not about the project.

As I pointed out yesterday at the event, it’s difficult to tell a story if people who are part of it refuse to participate. I spent a month trying to get on-the-record comments about this project from them, especially William McDonough. In fact, I corresponded with Kira Gould, McDonough’s communications director, who was sitting next to Ms Dale in the audience. McDonough and his firm had an opportunity to tell their story in my report. They are expert designers; I wanted to hear their expert conclusions. And they took a pass.

But now that the story’s out and I’ve been invited to speak on it, they want to be on stage, too. Frankly, this makes me think of someone who complains about an election but didn’t bother to vote. Like voting, a robust press is a part of what makes the democracy. Participation is key.

Several attendees who had no opinion or knowledge of the project approached me after the talk. A couple of them said that McDonough staffers had talked to them after my talk, as well. One woman said she’d just been told that the local officials completely cut the Americans out of the project, and McDonough + Partners could only participate as a kind of consultant with no real influence or control. Another attendee claims he was told by a McDonough staffer that they had almost no budget for their work on the village design, and that the budget barely paid for their plane tickets, which is why they couldn’t do a thorough job. Neither of those points came up during Ms Dale’s comments, though they sound as if they would be fundamental to the outcome.

Still, I was glad to finally hear something from William McDonough + Partners.

environment, irony

The McDonough Reappraisal

Conversations I’ve had about my work on the Huangbaiyu story almost always include a moment of surprise. In a conversation with a Los Angeles Times technology reporter last winter, for example, I explained the story of the failed attempt to create an eco-village in rural China, and the reporter interrupted me: “Have you ever heard of Bill McDonough? He’s got a lot of really good ideas.”

I explained to her that it was McDonough who inspired and led the effort, putting his name, his philosophy, and his staff to work on the project. She was surprised. It usually takes people a couple of seconds to work through the cognitive dissonance between all the star-studded adulation that surrounds McDonough and the reality that the Huangbaiyu project, at least, is a failure by its own standards.

A couple of months after publishing the piece, I was contacted by Fast Company about working on something related. There was some contractual stuff with Dwell that kept me from moving on this, but staff writer Danielle Sacks went ahead. And she did a remarkable job.

In the new Fast Company, you can read her take-down of McDonough, a sometimes sympathetic corrective to the perception of how he works and what it is, exactly, that he does. The section on Huangbaiyu is a point-by-point reiteration of my report, which was greatly informed by Shannon May’s research. Since this is my own humble blog, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that I’m the one who discovered that Huangbaiyu had been scrubbed from McDonough’s site, one of the fruits of my investigation. [Update: Shannon and I each discovered this independently.]

It should be noted that I had a few conversations about my story in which the people with whom I talked expressed no surprise whatsoever that the project failed, or that McDonough was involved. As a result, I had been keeping tabs on some of McDonough’s questionable endeavors, and a couple made it into her piece. The story is called Green Guru Gone Wrong.

Illustration by Grady McFerrin of farm animals and model home.
articles, Asia, China, development

Western Promises

Cover of October issue of Dwell magazineDwell Magazine’s October issue is out, and it includes an essay, entitled “Western Promises,” that I wrote about my reporting on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village project.  Huangbaiyu, a small village in northeast China, set to become a leading example of the power of green design in a country that desperately needs it. The architect William McDonough had top billing as a major driver in the project, which was planned according to his “cradle-to-cradle” principles. But the project failed. In retrospect, it seems as if it was destined to fail, given the fundamental flaws that I describe in the piece.

This story started out as an assignment for PBS Frontline/World, and covers the same ground. I’m grateful to Frontline/World and the team of producers and editors there, and to the editors at Dwell for giving me an opportunity to reflect on the story.

The essay hasn’t been posted online, but as soon as it’s available, I will link to it. (In the meantime, check out the magazine in print.) It’s accompanied by some excellent illustrations by Grady McFerrin (see above, for example). And the editors deserve extra credit for coming up with the title.

[Update: It’s online here!]

China, photography

Farmer Lu

lu through neighbor's window
This is Mr. Lu. He is a farmer.

He lives in a village in northeastern China. He has traveled throughout the country but his favorite part is this little valley. His family has been here for centuries. These are his cattle:

Every morning he takes his cattle out to graze, then brings them back around lunchtime. He usually orders lunch from the village restaurant.lunch with lu

If there are guests, there is beer. Lu says he can drink 27 bottles in one sitting. beer in lu\'s house

He was one of the poorest people in his village when he was a boy. Now he is among the most prosperous. He’s got the cash to prove holding up money as daughter stands by

That’s his younger daughter. She refused to hold up any of her dad’s cash.

There is a cat that hangs around their property. It showed up one day, unbidden. The next morning, it had deposited eighteen mice on their doorstep. Eighteen.

He’s a good cat, says Lu. They haven’t had any problems with mice since then.

Lu’s daughter refused to hold up any of her father’s money. But she was happy to hold the cat.daughter holding cat

anticipation, Asia, China, international, journalism, multimedia, photography


village boy

So there’s a story related to this picture. Actually, the story I’m telling is about the village where this boy lives. It’s the reason why I’ve embargoed all of my photos from China last August. Check Frontline/World tomorrow (Thursday, the last day of January) and you’ll see what I mean.