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Corona Column

Cultural organizations continue to suffer during the pandemic
For the duration of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, AN will use this column to keep our readers up to date on how the pandemic is affecting architecture and related industries. This weekly article is meant to digest the latest major developments in the crisis and synthesize broader patterns and what they could mean for architecture in the United States. The previous edition of the column can be found here. This week has been a reminder of the fact that while the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten millions around the world and to dominate the headlines, the disease is not the only thing killing people. But, as this column is dedicated to covering the pandemic’s impact on architecture, the arts, and the built environment, we can turn to some of the virus-related news that’s appeared on The Architect’s Newspaper’s site this week. Continuing on the news from last week, it’s been another rough few days for cultural institutions and events. Expo 2020 Dubai, for which Fentress Architects was designing the American pavilion, and the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, one of the many international architecture exhibitions, both postponed their programming to 2021 because of the pandemic. The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., permanently cut 42 positions, and that’s on top of layoffs made earlier this year while the museum struggled with funding while closed for six months as a result of reflooring its Great Hall. Across the pond, London’s Tate Britain museum decided that the Turner Prize, an annual £40,000 award given to a British visual artist, will instead be expanded into 10 £10,000 grants for different artists in need. It’s an example of how the art and architecture worlds may be rethinking things in this moment of global disruption. For more in-depth coverage of the pandemic’s impact on architecture, check out previous columns, including one on architecture’s role in how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Latino, and Native American people in the U.S., and resources for people facing unemployment. Cheers to a better week next week!
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Another Day, Another Delay...

Expo 2020 Dubai and Tallinn Architecture Biennale pushed back a year
It’s official; after much consternation, Expo 2020 Dubai will instead run from the end of 2021 through 2022 as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The festival, as with many other international design events dependent on luring visitors from all over the world, has postponed due to the uncertainties around keeping their guests safe. While AN first reported that festival organizers were considering postponing the worldwide design and technology showcase at the beginning of April, we also noted that the final decision rested with the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions, who administers the international expo. Two-thirds of the bureau’s member states quickly voted (remotely) to push the expo back a year over safety concerns on April 24, even though the United Arab Emirates has already spent $8 billion on related infrastructure projects. “In their support for the one-year postponement of Expo 2020 Dubai,” reads a statement from Dimitri S. Kerkentzes, the bureau’s secretary-general, “Member States of the BIE are giving the world the opportunity to reconvene in 2021, when together, we can address the challenges facing humanity and celebrate the unity and solidarity that strengthen us. With its theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, Expo 2020 Dubai will offer the world a unique platform to share the lessons, solutions and ideas for a better tomorrow.” Expo 2020 Dubai will keep its now incongruous name and will run from October 1, 2021, through March 31, 2022. The decision to move the festival will officially be ratified on May 29, the original closure of the voting period. With the extra time available, will countries rethink their pavilion ideas? Meanwhile, the World Expo isn’t the only event getting moved this week. In Estonia, the sixth Tallinn Architecture Biennale has been pushed from September of 2021 all the way into 2022 (a worrying sign for Biennales and Biennials slated for next year). Part of the reason came down to the Venice Architecture Biennale being delayed another year. “The peculiar times we live in has given us an extra year for the organisers and the head curator to prepare for the upcoming edition of TAB,” wrote Raul Järg, the director of the Estonian Centre for Architecture. “This ensures enough time for a high quality theme and a comprehensive programme. We hope that the teams who are participating in the curatorial competition understand the decision and are ready to contribute also in 2022.” The head curator search Järg referred to is still ongoing; interested participants have until May 29 to submit to the competition, which is being held by the Estonian Centre for Architecture, the biennale’s organizers. No specific dates for the rescheduled biennale has been provided yet.
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Weathering the storm

National Building Museum continues to slash staff with deep layoffs
The hits keep on coming for the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., as last week the museum announced it had permanently cut 42 positions, according to DCist. The layoffs came only two weeks after executive director Chase Rynd announced that he would be retiring from his position after a 17-year tenure. That announcement came only days after the April 30th partial furloughing of the institution’s salaried staff members, in a move that cut their hours to 80 percent of what they would normally be, and furloughed all of their visitor-facing staff. Of course, while coronavirus is partially to blame for the museum’s financial dilemma, as previously noted, the building has actually been shuttered for six months thanks to a much-needed, three-month renovation of the Great Hall’s ceramic flooring. (The National Building Museum has been closed since March 12, one day before its scheduled reopening, to halt the spread of COVID-19.) Eight percent of staff was cut in February as the museum struggled to raise money during the closure, just as the institution was celebrating its 40th birthday. The layoffs last week constituted two-thirds of the museum’s staff; according to DCist, 23 of those were on the administrative side and 19 were hourly visitor’s staff, and only 18 full-time employees now remain. Although its popular Summer Block Party event series has been pushed to 2021 and all of their remaining events have been canceled through the fall, the museum is still reportedly plugging along on a number of projects. That includes the exhibitions Justice is Beauty: The Work of MASS Design Group and the border wall-focused The Wall/El Muro: What Is a Border Wall?, the opening of their new visitor’s pavilion, staging their anniversary celebration, and figuring out new social distancing guidelines for their eventual reopening. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is unduly stressing arts and design museums across the globe as revenue plummets. Still, some cultural institutions are slowly testing the waters as to what measures they’ll need to take to reopen, including implementing temperature checks, encouraging social distancing, and halving occupancy maximums—steps the National Building Museum will likely have to look into as well.
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In Brief

London pushes its Design Biennale and design fairs to 2021
Cultural institutions around the world are slowly starting to reopen or staking out tentative dates after coronavirus pandemic-related closures, but design festivals, by their international and communal natures, are by-and-large pushing things back to 2021. That includes London, where infection rates for COVID-19 are still slowly creeping upward. As a result, yesterday the organizers of three major London exhibitions and design fairs announced that they would be delaying their events to 2021 as well. The third edition of the London Design Biennale, which was originally scheduled to run from September 8 through 27, has been moved to June 2021 (no specific dates have been given yet). Additionally, the London Design Fair, which was set to take place from September 17 to 20 as part of the Biennale, will take place at an as-of-yet unspecified date in 2021. Clerkenwell Design Week, a design festival and showroom “crawl” across the eponymous London neighborhood, was originally scheduled as usual to run from May 19 through 21 of this year, but was first pushed to July 14 through 16, then to May 25 through 27 of 2021. “The countries, cities and territories in our international network are core to our mission,” reads the London Design Biennale postponement announcement. “Keeping our visitors and designers safe remains our priority and given the current international travel restrictions and potential quarantine requirements, we are postponing the 2020 Biennale exhibition to 2021. The third edition will now take place in June 2021, still at Somerset House, London.”
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BLINDED BY SCIENCE

Vrbo eschewed predictability for the ‘science of work’ at its Austin headquarters
At first thought, a vacation rental platform isn’t the most likely of candidates to transition into new offices with an interior design scheme steered by science. One might expect oversized murals evoking far-flung destinations, workspaces enlivened by exotic colors, maybe a Parisian bistro-themed commissary. Vrbo’s nine-floor corporate home in Austin, Texas, however, eschews predictability in favor of a “science of work”-centric design approach in which data, ecology, and technology play key roles. The “House of Science” concept envisioned for Vrbo by Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary design firm Rios Clementi Hale (RCH) Studios might sound improbable but in reality, it’s, well, a miracle of science—and smartly considered design. The project, now in its second phase as work commences on the final few floors, kicked off with a three-month information-collection exercise with Vrbo (then HomeAway, prior to a rebranding that brought the two Expedia-owned platforms together) to “help them redefine how they wanted to work and who they were as a company,” Andy Lantz, creative director of RCH Studios, explained. “What that entailed was an approach that combined anthropology with data collection.” Focus groups held during this period revealed that employees spent a copious amount of time cloistered away in conference rooms and partaking in intra-office travel. “A lot of their day was spent migrating from place to place,” said Lantz. At the end of the data-gathering period, the data was presented to Vrbo’s executive team, headed by John Kim, who became fascinated by “the notion science behind what it meant to work,” said Lantz. “He found it extremely interesting that the project could find innovation in designing spaces that were exemplary to collaboration, and focused more on a science-based understanding of travel.” As a result, Vrbo’s offices are filled with design elements that foster opportunities for effortless, spontaneous meetings among coworkers, including custom-built, tech-integrated “collaboration tables,” tiered seating areas, and easily accessible enclosed conference rooms. To make travel throughout the building less onerous and dependent on remote elevators and stairwells, interconnected double-height floors now link workplace “neighborhoods,” and do away with the confining nature of large office spaces. As for the office’s five major neighborhoods, each has been assigned a different natural ecosystem and an associated scientific domain: astronomy (the desert), geography (coastal beaches), snow science (the mountains), limnology (lakeside), and topography (forests). Color schemes, furnishings, interior plantings, and even smells are reflective, from a sensorial standpoint, of a distinct destination/natural environment. For example, floors eight and nine, “The Canopy” and “The Thicket,” feature darker, more brooding hues as a means of creating a subtly sylvan atmosphere. As Lantz explained, this approach was a way of “designing for everything but the standard icons of what travel is” while allowing Vrbo to rebrand and reintroduce itself both internally and externally. “It’s really interesting to try and imagine conveying the emotion of travel without conveying the iconography of travel,” said Lantz. “We tried to capture quintessential, ephemeral feelings of being in certain destinations.”
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That's Not Good

April’s Architecture Billings Index drops even further
The Architecture Billings Index (ABI), the measure the AIA uses to track design services demand, took a dour downturn in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic shook economic confidence and locked up job sites—but April’s numbers, released this morning, are much worse. The ABI is a composite number that factors in regional averages, design demand by sector, project inquiries, and existing design contracts. Anything over 50 represents month-over-month growth, anything under is a decrease. In March, billings had dropped to 33.3, the steeped decline ever recorded in the metric’s 25-year history, but in April the ABI slid even further to 29.5. Regionally, the Northeast was predictably hit the hardest, as demand slid to 23.0. The West figures were the strongest at 38.1 (still severe contraction), while the Midwest came in at 31.2 and the South at 31.1. This is unsurprising, as construction, even a month later, remains highly constricted across the U.S. even as some cities have begun tentatively allowing non-essential construction again. Sector-wise, institutional work remained the strongest, as expected, at 36.1, while the commercial and industrial sectors dropped to a paltry 27.8. Multi-family residential projects fell to 30.3, and mixed practice projects came in at 29.0. In March, all four typologies were in the mid-to-low 40s range. Inquiries into new projects, which had dropped to 27.1 in March, rose to 28.4, while the design contracts index remained low at 27.6. “With the dramatic deceleration that we have seen in the economy since mid-March,” wrote AIA chief economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, “it’s not surprising that businesses and households are waiting for signs of stability before proceeding with new facilities. Once business activity resumes, demand for design services should pick up fairly quickly. Unfortunately, the precipitous drop in demand for design services will have lasting consequences for some firms.”
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RIP

Robert Coles, trailblazing Buffalo architect, dies at 90
Following a long, fruitful, and often challenging career that was marked by rampant racial discrimination but helped open doors for fellow architects of color, Robert Traynham Coles, founding member and inaugural secretary of the National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA), has passed away at the age of 90. Elected in 1994 as the first African American architect to serve as chancellor of the AIA College of Fellows, Coles established his practice three decades prior in his native Buffalo, New York. Throughout his career, Coles was known as somewhat of a hometown hero: A polished designer of local landmarks (the JFK Community Center, the Alumni Arena and Natatorium at the University at Buffalo, and the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library are among them), a community organizer, and a tireless champion of the underserved who dedicated his career to “an architecture of social conscience” according to an announcement released by nycoba, the New York chapter of NOMA. Coles’s home and studio, a modernist hybrid prefab affair, located in Buffalo’s Hamlin Park Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. “His house on the parkway was the sleeper. It’s a distinctively and exemplary modern house, as distinctive as Jefferson's Monticello,” architect Clinton Brown told the Buffalo News. “He was one of the few architects to be living in the house he designed when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of America's most significant houses.” “One of the most important lessons from his life and work is he was a great architect,” added Brown. “He's often pigeonholed as an African American architect. His work is some of the best architecture ever built in Buffalo.” Outside of his beloved hometown, Coles also designed buildings in New York City, Washington, D.C., Providence, Rhode Island, and Rochester, New York. Coles also served as an educator and mentor, holding teaching positions at the University of Kansas and Carnegie Mellon University. Coles himself received his undergraduate architecture degree from the University of Minnesota before attending the Massachusetts of Technology, where he received a master’s of architecture in 1955. Following his graduation, Coles studied in Europe and apprenticed in Boston before returning to Buffalo in 1961 and opening his eponymous practice two years later. It is the oldest African American-own architectural firm in both New York and in the Northeast. Coles was the recipient of numerous local and national accolades including, most recently, the 2019 Edward C. Kemper Award from the AIA for his significant contributions to the practice of architecture. Many of these awards, as the Buffalo News points out, were in recognition of his work with minority architecture students and fledgling practitioners. “Our cities have become more diverse and the populations are multi-racial, but we need architects who also are diverse and multiracial to build the cities of the future for those populations,” Coles told Buffalo-Toronto National Public Radio affiliate WBFO in a 2019 profile, which noted that a majority of the architects who worked with Coles at his firm over the years were minorities and women. Coles also published a memoir, Architecture and Advocacy, in 2016. According to the WFBO profile, he was hard at work writing a second book as of last year. “Bob Coles was a Buffalo original and a brilliant, trailblazing figure in architecture,” Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said in a statement. “He fought for African American representation in all aspects of architecture and mentored architects of all races. His creative vision came to life throughout Western New York and in other parts of the nation.” Coles is survived by his wife, Sylvia, and two children.
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Keeping it PROfessional

AN catches up with Peterson Rich Office
Peterson Rich Office (PRO), is a small studio that can seemingly do it all. Hot off of their selection as one of the Architectural League of New York’s 2020 Emerging Voices, AN traveled to PRO’s office in Gowanus, Brooklyn, to chat with founders Miriam Peterson and Nathan Rich about the firm’s multidisciplinary work. Aside from their elegant interior work (which landed them on last year’s AN Interior Top 50 list), PRO is also making a splash with their light-filled and sensitive conversions (see Galerie Perrotin on the Lower East Side) as well as their studies on reinvigorating decrepit New York City Housing Authority developments. With so much on their plate, we wanted to check in on the eight-year-old studio’s design philosophy, as well as what we can expect from them next. The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. Jonathan Hilburg: How would you describe the firm’s design philosophy? Nathan Rich: I would say we shoot for what we call specificity. It’s just the term that we've latched onto. It means that we don’t have a particular style or a particular material palette, but we try to engage place. We try to engage the things about each project that are unique to that project. And in that process we try to resist trends and style, actually. When we first started working it was around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, and that was a very formative experience, I think, in establishing our philosophy of how architects can create value, and how architects can be valuable. We saw that professionals can be very quickly and easily affected by markets, and can’t operate as something strictly autonomous, but are instead part of something that’s collaborative—a larger system of  actors working towards the common goal of building something. So with that said, I think we believe in collaboration and we recognize that every project is a little different. And by engaging with clients and collaborators, I think we’re able to create things that are richer and hopefully more valuable. [Referring to Glossier’s Manhattan flagship store, completed by PRO and interior designers Gachot Studios in 2018] This is a good jumping-off point. What were the challenges in translating a brand that is mainly an online presence into a brick and mortar store? How can you turn something that’s mainly digital into a physical presence? With Glossier, I think what was really interesting is that they have such a strong culture around the people that use the product, and they've really tried and been successful in building a brand that’s about community and sharing, and the way that they actually sell the product is through the staff. They have a team called editors who work with the customers on figuring out what the right products might be for them. It’s meant to be a very community-based experience. So that’s a spatial idea, which in some ways made our job easier because it offers a strong vision for how they wanted the place the function. I can give you a specific example. At the store, the sinks where customers can try on makeup. These were purposely designed to be able to sit more than one person. So you’re not looking in the mirror by yourself, but rather with a friend or with one of the staff. That makes sense. Do you want to talk a little about the private Manhattan penthouse PRO is working on? I just want to hear about how that came together, especially the big centerpiece staircase. With a private residential project, obviously the motivation is very different than it is for retail. The clients brought a lot of their own ideas to the table and were uncompromising in those ideas. Close-up photo of a concrete staircase The long, twisting staircase at the heart of PRO’s penthouse project was digitally fabricated and hand-finished. (Courtesy Peterson Rich Office)We worked with them on that staircase, for example, and they had this concept of there being a stairway to nowhere. That apartment has three levels. There’s a lower level, then there’s a second floor of the penthouse, and then there's a terrace that is up yet another level. When we first started working in that space it was all quite closed off and you really had no sense for that. So our initial goal was structurally to open the place up as much as possible so that you can really experience all three of those levels. The stairway to nowhere was this formal gesture that connected all three of those levels. We did a series of 3D prints and design studies working really closely with the client. We sent those 3D prints back and forth to their home abroad and that became a part of the design process. And when we finally landed on a form that was structurally feasible and that also felt right, we took the 3D prints and expanded them up to a 5-axis CNC milling process. We were able to mill the form out of high-density foam which wrapped this steel structure. The mass was then finished with a concrete micro-topping to give it the appearance that it has. To the client’s credit, this was not an easy process. So this ties into your work with Gallery Perrotin, which is by comparison massive at 25,000 square feet. But looking at the photos, there’s still a lot of light and very pleasing forms, like the uplit coffered ceilings. Perrotin wanted a minimal material palette, and they didn’t want things that would potentially distract from the artworks. But they also had pretty extensive infrastructural demands for how the space needed to function. They have artists that work in many different ways. Everything from traditional painting and sculpture to installation work. One of the first installations in the space was to hang several cars from the ceiling. Making all of that happen and keeping the space minimal was a real challenge. One of the things we were finding through the design process was that a lot of the infrastructure that was required to make the space function as we needed was at the ceiling. And so, the ceiling had to do a lot of different things, and rather than making it busy or to try to hide all of those things, we decided to try to almost emphasize all of the things through this formal gesture. So the form became a way of partly concealing, but also making the most out of what is a very complex system. So I’m familiar with your background from our Emerging Voices interview, but do you want to speak to how that also has played into your current design ethos? Sure. So I worked five years with Steven Holl Architects. And Steven Holl Architects is very interested in phenomenology, and the way that spaces change as you move through them, and also as light moves on them and through them. And so I would say that’s a huge impact on our own work. Miriam worked for Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who talk a lot about timelessness in their work, and the timeless qualities of certain materials and light. So again, I would say that there are common philosophies and attitudes that have had a strong impact on us. How much does the firm focus on materiality? I’m interested to hear your approach. It’s something that we’re trying to get better at, to be honest. And our retail clients, in particular, I think have helped teach us quite a bit about materiality because for them materials are very closely related to identity. Now we’re experimenting with ways to tiptoe more materiality into the cultural projects. Are you working on anything interesting in particular now that dips into that? Yes. We’re working on two relevant projects. One is a small university gallery space, and that’ll be a new gallery building adjacent to an historic building with a very strong material identity. So we’re trying to create something contemporary that’s in dialogue with that. And the other is a new gallery and art center in an old church building in Detroit. We’ve been charged with creating a series of gallery spaces, a performance space, and a small library inside the church. The existing church has strong materiality, a lot of form, a lot of articulation and detailing. We’re trying to think a lot about how contemporary architecture can be inserted into that context.
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Night at the Museum

MoMA brings its exhibitions online through the Virtual Views series
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) might still be closed to the public, but thanks to its Virtual Views series of digital tours, “visitors” can check out what’s going on at the museum every Thursday night. By harnessing a combination of video, high-resolution images of every piece and didactics, a multitude of audio guides for each exhibition, tours of the galleries themselves, and interviews with curators and artists, the MoMA has managed to digitize much of its offerings. Don’t fret if you couldn’t get to the Manhattan museum before they shut down on March 13 over ongoing coronavirus concerns. Of particular note to architecture and design enthusiasts are two exhibitions that can be fully explored from the comfort of your couch; Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, a retrospective of architect, designer, and material scientist Neri Oxman’s work with MIT’s Mediated Matter Group, and Judd, a blowout survey of sculptor Donald Judd’s work, writings, and legacy. Of course, being able to navigate the now-empty halls of the MoMA is no substitute for seeing an exhibition firsthand—much of the power of Judd’s work stems from experiencing the simple, clean forms he worked with in person to properly appreciate their use of color and light. Still, if one just went to see the show, they would have missed out on curator Ann Temkin’s interview with Judd’s son Flavin, or interviews with three of (the elder) Judd’s former studio assistants. Of particular note is the “Reading Judd” section, where Temkin, the Henry Kravis chief curator of painting and sculpture, joins painting and sculpture curatorial assistant Tamar Margalit and Pablo Helguera, director of adult and academic programs, to discuss Judd’s written works that paint him as a “writer, citizen, and instigator.” The Neri Oxman virtual tour is just as thorough, although digital participants lose the sense of scale conjured by the large pieces that blend the cutting edge of digital fabrication and material science. What one loses in perspective, however, one gains in the audio guides of Oxman herself walking guests through the design process for four individual pieces. While we may not be able to view the monumental Silk Pavilion II in person (a twisting canopy realized by guiding silkworks to spin over a steel frame), Oxman is on hand to discuss it wherever you might be. Also of note is the Home Movies virtual film exhibition, where the museum will continue to offer up treasures from its archives paired with discussions. And while the Virtual Views calendar might stop at the end of May, the museum is gearing up to offer a new suite of digital shows and events come June.
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Well, Yeah

Venice Architecture Biennale pushed to 2021
In an unsurprising turn of events, the organizers of the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale announced this morning that, due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the festival will be postponed to May 2021. Most businesses in hard-hit Italy are slowly beginning to reopen as COVID-19 rates decline, but the global nature of the Biennale, from the visitors to mounting the international pavilions, poses a unique challenge to staging the festival. Of course, postponing the Biennale an entire year was never out of the question as the show had already been moved once from May 2020 to August. This year’s show, originally titled and themed “How will we live together?” was set to interrogate themes of inequality, social housing, and urban connectivity, pressing issues the world over regardless of wealth. “I am deeply moved by the perseverance of all the Participants during the last three months,” said Biennale curator Hashim Sarkis. “I hope that the new opening date will allow them first to catch their breath, and then to complete their work with the time and vigor it truly deserves. We did not plan it this way. Neither the question I asked How will we live together? nor the wealth of ways in response to it, were meant to address the crisis they are living, but here we are. We are in some ways fortunate because we are well equipped to absorb the immediate and longer-term implications of the crisis into the Biennale Architettura 2021. The theme does also provide us with the possibility to respond to the pandemic in its immediacy. This is why we will return to Venice in the coming months for a series of activities devoted to the Architecture.” One upside of the postponement is that it’s given organizers and participants more leeway to plan for staging a show in what will likely be a changed world. Visitors will also be able to enjoy the show for the full length, as it will run the standard six months, from May 22, 2021, to November 21, 2020. “The last few days,” wrote Biennale president Roberto Cicutto in the announcement, “have clarified the real state of the situation we are all facing. With the utmost respect for the work done by all of us, the investments made by the Participants, and considering the difficulties that all countries, institutions, universities, architectural studios have met together with the uncertainty of the shipments, personal travel restraints and Covid-19 protective measures that are being and were be adopted, we have decided to listen to those, the majority, who requested that the Biennale Architettura be postponed. I have received many messages asking for a postponement to 2021.” “We now plan to open the 17th International Architecture Exhibition in May 2021 and allow it a longer life until November, as it was before the pandemic. Nevertheless Architecture will be in Venice this Fall organizing several events keeping at the center of the stage the question, more relevant than ever, of How will we live together?.” Cicutto’s statement refers to the fact that exhibitors were already exploring alternate avenues for showing their work to minimize potential COVID-19 exposure. Australia had previously withdrawn from putting up a pavilion (though with the announcement, they may return) and Russia had decided to install their pavilion wholly online. Because the Architecture Biennale is being moved to 2021, the 59th International Art Exhibition is being pushed back to 2022.
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THE SOCIAL NETWORKER

A new book argues Frederick Kiesler was the influencer at the center of American modernism
Instead of charting an artist or architect’s career as a sequence of projects, what if you mapped it according to the people with whom they conversed, commiserated, and collaborated? That is the productive experiment contained within the book Frederick Kiesler: Face to Face with the Avant-Garde, about the Austro-American architect. Its 21 essays “on network and impact” are like 21 faces of a prism that reveals Kiesler not simply as a creative and critical dynamo, but, as Peter Bogner, one of the book’s editors, writes in the introduction, “as a dedicated networker who played a pivotal role in the transfer of ideas between the European avant-garde and the New World.” Remembered in architecture circles today for designing several spectacular exhibitions and especially for his unbuilt, cocoon-like Endless House project (1947–61), Kiesler was anything but a recluse. It’s jarring, at first, to see a serious artist-architect characterized as “a dedicated networker,” as if Kiesler were a brand ambassador for LinkedIn. But the truth is he spent a lot of time schmoozing, and his sociability helped fuel his career. Standing just five feet tall, Kiesler charismatically commanded a room, his intelligence lightened by “a twinkle in his voice and a critically penetrating wit,” as Caroll Janis remembers. To read about Kiesler by way of his compatriots and contemporaries is a little bit like attending his 1965 funeral in Manhattan, which featured a lineup of spirited readings and performances. At one point the artist Robert Rauschenberg rolled a car tire through the rows of mourners, painted it near the altar, and laid it to rest by Kiesler’s casket. Though few if any architects attended the funeral, Kiesler was “rediscovered” by 1970s architects who embraced environmental art, and resurrected once more in the new millennium by spatial innovators wielding digital modeling tools. Hani Rashid, the ex-president of the Frederick Kiesler Foundation, writes in his foreword that Kiesler, with his fluid and interactive forms, “recognized the prophetic glimmers of a neurally networked planet and society.” The Endless House remains not just a paragon of sculptural plasticity, but also a daring, if all but unrealizable, vision of a total environment in flux. “As an architect, Kiesler does not often get his due,” the late Bill Menking wrote in 2016. “But Kiesler never gave up his desire to build,” and his creative vision remains “more relevant than ever in today’s world of architecture practice.” Previous books on Kiesler, such as Stephen J. Phillips’s Elastic Architecture of 2017 and a 1989 Whitney Museum exhibition catalog, provide a relatively monographic analysis of Kiesler’s multidisciplinary practice. In contrast, Face to Face uses network research, a technique developed in the social sciences, to shed light on Kiesler’s formative relationships and social circles in relation to certain key “nodes,” i.e. projects and events. The volume’s many essays describe Kiesler’s sometimes warm, sometimes fraught relationships with figures such as Theo van Doesburg, Hans Richter, Sigfried Giedion, Marcel Duchamp, and Piero Dorazio, and with collectives like the Bauhaus and the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen. Architect and environmental artist James Wines, founder of SITE, writes that his friendship with Kiesler set him on a new creative path. “Transfixed by this diminutive and iconoclastic genius,” Wines writes, “I basically abandoned my entire sculpture career and ventured into experimental architecture.” Kiesler disdained the label “avant-garde,” Wines adds, as “even more degradingly conservative than being called ‘historical.’” Frederick Kiesler was born in 1890 in a provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is now part of Ukraine. After studying and working in Vienna, he first broke through as a designer in Berlin, in 1923, with his electro-mechanical stage set for Karel Capek’s dystopian robot play R.U.R. After the second performance, as Kiesler was preparing to exit the theater, he was grabbed and carried off by Theo van Doesburg and his De Stijl “gang,” whose members included El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter, and Kurt Schwitters. They met Mies van der Rohe at a club, where they spent the night discussing revolutionary ideas for architecture and theater. Kiesler then circulated between Vienna, Berlin, and Paris until 1926, when he first traveled to New York to set up a theater exhibition. Kiesler’s heady networking required support and sacrifices along the way. Stefi, his first wife, “gave up her life as an artist and began working at the New York Public Library in August 1927,” as Gerd Zillner writes. Kiesler befriended establishment architects like Harvey Wiley Corbett and Wallace K. Harrison—valuable connections—but corporate practice did not suit him. His attempts to practice architecture in New York were thwarted by the collapse of commissions for a theater in Brooklyn Heights (1926), a museum building for the Société Anonyme (1927), and a theater in Woodstock, New York (1931). In 1931 he was introduced to Hilla Rebay as a potential architect for the planned Museum for Non-Objective Art, the future Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, but that project, too, fell through for Kiesler. Amid the Depression, Kiesler found work designing theatrical stage sets, luxury shop windows, a cinema, a modern furniture showroom, and a model house. He also landed faculty positions at Columbia University and the Juilliard School and published articles on his theories of “design correlation” and “correalism” in which, simply put, everything responds to everything else. Though the Kieslers hosted countless parties and distinguished guests including Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Mies at their penthouse apartment on Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, where they lived from 1933, Kiesler always protected his creative and intellectual space. For example, Almut Grunewald’s essay recounts how the art historian Carola Giedion-Welcker, the wife of Sigfried Giedion, was impressed by Kiesler’s design for the 1947 Surrealist exhibition in Paris, and suggested recruiting Kiesler to CIAM. “Kiesler explained to me that what he does is a rebellion against hygienic architecture. That he is not a surrealist,” Carola wrote to Sigfried. “Might he not be useful for CIAM?” But, though Kiesler and Giedion shared an interest in the synthesis of the arts, and enjoyed at least sociable outing to the beach together, as shown in a photo, they ultimately held each other at arm’s length. Kiesler never joined CIAM, which came to represent precisely the “hygienic architecture” against which Kiesler rebelled with his poetic search for “the endless.” The Endless House, for which MoMA commissioned a full-scale model that was never realized, is at once Kiesler’s most recognizable and most misunderstood project. To this day it brings new designers and thinkers into the orbit of this ever-beguiling artist-architect—thus expanding his posthumous network—but the visual power of Kiesler’s drawings and models all too often overshadows his desire to put people in touch, literally, with architecture and the environment. Face to Face with the Avant-Garde takes an important cue from Kiesler’s theory of continual interaction and movement. Indeed, the book offers something like a “correalistic” approach to the figure of Kiesler himself—endlessly recomposed of opportune encounters, transformative conversations, and transatlantic debates.
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Corona Column

Headed to recovery?
For the duration of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, AN will use this column to keep our readers up to date on how the pandemic is affecting architecture and related industries. This weekly article is meant to digest the latest major developments in the crisis and synthesize broader patterns and what they could mean for architecture in the United States. The previous edition of the column can be found here. As summer approaches, the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is at a crossroads. States are reopening, some slower than others, and are waiting to see what the season brings. The reopening on nonessential construction sites could mean that better times are coming for architects, but the future is still uncertain, and this week’s architecture-related coronavirus news reflects that. In less than rosy news, a report from a group of nonprofits related to New York’s parks said the city’s green spaces were likely to suffer because of the pandemic’s economic fallout. Cuts in both public funding and private donations are expected to hit the parks hard this year, a blow to a system that has crept back from a pretty dire state in only the past couple of decades. Job loss continued in April, according to numbers that were released earlier this week. Unsurprisingly, construction jobs were hit hard, with nearly one million lost in April. Next month’s numbers should show whether or not the slow reopening of certain construction sites will affect those numbers. Obviously, construction jobs are not the only AEC-related positions lost across the country—cultural institution jobs across New York City have disappeared as museums facing budget shortfalls have laid off and furloughed hundreds, architecture firms have cut positions, and Airbnb laid off almost 2,000 employees. Airbnb is not the only property tech company facing issues. WeWork, which in the past year went from one of the most hyped startups in the world to a symbol of venture capital hubris, is facing lawsuits from tenants who are legally required to work from home and therefore do not want to pay rent. The legal battle is only a small part of the much broader question about what the future of workspaces will be now that recent trends like coworking and open floor plans seem like surefire ways to spread disease. In happier news, there are signs that the design world is already adapting to change. While the future of the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale is still in doubt—Australia has already withdrawn from the festival—Russia’s pavilion (appropriately titled Open?) has moved online. And the State Department is distributing a version of a guide made by the AIA to help administrations select alternative treatment sites for coronavirus cases. The second edition of the COVID-19 Alternative Care Sites Assessment Tool is now being distributed around the world. Hopefully, next week will bring more good news.