Search results for "Public Design Commission"

Eavesdrop: Alissa Walker


Make it stop! Los Angeles’ ongoing battle to put the lights out on those searing electronic billboards got another surge of power this month as statewide legislation was introduced to help fight the blight. After LA enacted a three-month citywide moratorium on new digital billboards in December, this month Assemblyman Mike Feuer introduced Assembly Bill 109, which proposes a two-year statewide moratorium on the construction and conversion of digital billboards. Yes, billboards were preparing to build and digitize themselves! It’s like Transformers! AIA board member and LA Planning Commission member Michael Woo, who first proposed the LA moratorium in December, wrote a fantastic piece in the LA Times where he explained these shiny suckers are not only dangerous, they’re actually plotting to take over the city: A new type of LED-embedded glass will turn entire sides of high-rises into king-size animated ads for Full Throttle energy drinks. Watch for local residents gouging their eyes out with spoons.


The very public reverberations continue after the December resignation of LA’s Planning Commission president Jane Usher, who bade farewell to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with a spirited letter of wishes for the city to carry out in her absence. (Our favorite: “We must begin by ending our current artifice: we have not enforced our billboard permit program ban.” Ahem.) After her dramatic exit, Kevin Roderick said in his weekly commentary on KCRW that Usher’s outgoing statement was actually much more vicious than it appeared at the outset, saying that it “essentially called BS on the mayor’s approach to letting developers build wherever a bus might someday pass, in the name of transit-friendly growth.” Ouch! Although critics were initially incensed that the overly developer-friendly Sean O. Burton was appointed to fill her seat, everyone was quite pleased to hear that architect Bill Roschen was named as president early this year. The principal of Hollywood-based Roschen Van Cleve Architects describes his work as “place-based design.” It’s about time.


On a sad note, a beloved fixture in the architecture community and a pioneer of Santa Monica’s revitalization, Herb Katz, died on January 7 after a long battle with cancer. As president of RTK Architects since 1966, Katz was the designer of a diverse list of projects, including many civic, institutional, and educational works in Santa Monica, where he also served as mayor. Hundreds of people attended his memorial service on January 12, which was covered in the next day’s Santa Monica Daily Press, slugged the “We’ll miss you, Herb” issue. Katz was first elected to Santa Monica’s city council in 1984 and served the city in some governmental capacity every year until his death. Now that’s what we like to call community service.

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Q&A: Tom Kundig
Tim Bies

Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig had what he would call a “really terrific 2008.” In May he was awarded the Architecture Design Award for the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2008 National Design Awards, and last fall the AIA named his firm, Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, Firm of the Year. Born in California but of mountain-climbing Swiss descent, Kundig spent his formative years in Canada and Alaska, where he first worked as an architect, before turning to architecture at the University of Washington and becoming a partner at Olson Sundberg with Scott Allen in 2000. Kundig quickly became known for his use of natural, sustainable materials and his love for kinetic architecture—designing dynamic elements often powered by antiquated machinery but softened by nature. Kundig talked to AN about the secret to Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen’s longstanding partnership and why Seattle’s architecture might at last be entering a golden age.

THE ARCHITECT’S NEWSPAPER: Some people would say your Cooper-Hewitt win and the AIA Firm of the Year would mean Seattle is finally getting noticed. Do you guys see it that way?

TOM KUNDIG: In the past, I’ve thought that maybe it’s fair that the East Coast and California don’t recognize good stuff is being done in other places. Now I don’t. I think sometimes work flowers out of an area, and regions get a little bit insecure about what’s being generated in their area. But there’s been work coming out of Arizona for a few years now that’s really been terrific. There’s work coming out of the Midwest that’s really terrific. I think there has been some great work that’s come out of Seattle, maybe it’s better right now, maybe it’s going to get even better. 

What about personally, how is your own work evolving?
I think one of the important issues every professional has to think about is how you continue to change and morph and still be true to the core of yourself. And I think that’s a full-time job. It’s a chore but I think people like Glenn Murcutt or Peter Zumthor or Herzog and de Meuron or Steven Holl—and there are others, many others—are able to achieve that recalibration and continue to be inventive. That’s a challenge. 

tim bies

mary randlett

paul warchol
OUTPOST, CENTRAL IDAHO (top); earth house, longbranch, washington (middle); and mission hill winery, westbank, bc, canada (above).

You’re known for your residential work. Are you shifting your focus from that?
I’m working on some things that are different in scale, certainly, from the past. Some urban work, some highrise and midrise that, depending on the economy, might be built. There’s one, Sun Valley Center for the Arts, which is looking for funding right now. It’s really my first small community center; it’s a kunsthalle, basically. 

You’ve become well known for using simple, affordable materials. In fact, you once described something as “dirt cheap,” but in a good way!
Maybe it’s just something that’s important to me, being frugal and efficient by nature. There’s the types of materials, first of all. Leaving them as-is makes them beautiful as-is. And it’s humble, it’s modest, and it’s not indulgent. You basically take a material and let it be what it wants to be. That seems awfully efficient, and yes, dirt cheap! 

You’re also famous for your experiments with kinetic architecture. How did this become a signature part of your work?
When I was a kid I grew up in a mining-logging-farming area, and of course there was a lot of machinery, a lot of practically-designed—and in their own way, beautiful—machinery. And when I lived in Alaska, I would go way out in the country, hiking and mountain climbing, and I would see these pieces of machinery way the heck back there, powered by water coming off the side of a mountain or by wind. The guys who designed these were geniuses! I think as I was developing an architectural voice, I realized there was something similar about building that I found fascinating: that buildings could be changed by people using them. You can literally move walls or furniture and move it on a scale that reminds you that in fact you’re capable—with geometry and physics—of moving these things. 

How did you join Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen?
Jim Olson founded his firm in 1966, and when I came down from Alaska in 1986, of course I knew the old firm, and this new firm that was reconfiguring itself [with Rick Sundberg]. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do because I had my own firm in Alaska and I had started to feel a little more personal about my work. So I joined the firm in 1986 as a test to see if I could work with a group of people and it felt really comfortable. It wasn’t so much that my voice was exactly like their voice, but if you did good work, it was a firm that skeptically but supportively let you use your own voice and develop it.

What’s happening in Seattle architecture that’s exciting?
Hopefully, some of the stuff we’re doing right now. I’ve got some projects I’m excited about, but they’re not built yet. I think there’s some good work going on, but nothing big and splashy like the Olympic Sculpture Park and the Seattle Public Library. Now, those were both out-of-city architects; if we can do something for our own city on that scale, that would be great. The Olympic Sculpture Park would’ve been a dream commission. That integration of the landscape and art in an urban setting—that would have been really interesting to me. Especially in a civic setting, you can’t get much better than that! There are some waterfront projects, too, it’s basically the removal of our viaduct, our Embarcadero, and that could have some interesting possibilities. And of course, Obama’s new infrastructure directive, that could lead to interesting stuff, because during our massive infrastructural building in the 30s, boy, there were some wonderful things being done, from dams to powerhouses to bridges.

Delta Shelter, Mazama, Washington
Tim Bies


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Q&A: Sherida Paulsen

Kelly campbell

On December 11, Sherida Paulsen assumed her responsibilities as the 2009 president of AIA New York. William Menking, editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, sat down that afternoon with Paulsen in her office at the architectural firm PKSB, where she is a partner, to talk about her goals for AIA NY, her thoughts on architects as communicators and public activists, and her experiences with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, where she served as commissioner from 1995 to 2004.

The Architect’s Newspaper: AIA NY presidents come into office with a theme or initiative for the year. In 2008, James McCullar focused on housing, and in prior years, it was public policy and interior architecture. What have you proposed for 2009?
Sherida Paulsen: My theme is “Elevating Architecture,” which is broad enough to allow us to do a number of things. I hope to use the Center for Architecture as it was intended—a true public resource center. I want to build up the awareness of our library as a professional and public resource and to promote our public information exchange and our online information site for projects around the city. I also want to get AIA members out into the community as much as possible. My secondary theme is “Design Literacy for All,” and that is meant to broaden our outreach to various educational constituencies and neighborhood groups in order to increase design literacy among the public.

What specific initiatives, programs, or projects do you have in mind?
Some programs have been happening for years. At the Center, they run a symposium with the NYC Department of Health, called Fit City. It broadens the audience for health-related things having to do with architecture. And we’re planning another one. We’re also doing a symposium on design literacy for kids with the AIA’s existing programs, Learning by Design, which has over 5,000 kids participating in the public schools and on Family Days at the Center. If we can increase the numbers of those programs, it gives more people a reason to come to the Center on Saturday or Sunday. And this does two things: It teaches people about design, and it creates awareness among parents and children that architecture is a profession that might be of interest to them. 

This suggests there is a disconnect between the profession and the public. Do you believe the public misunderstands architects?
The public doesn’t understand what we do. It’s never been properly explained to the users of our designs what they should expect from a building. We need to explain better what quality design is. Part of that means shifting from simply grading buildings on a form-making scale for design and looking at a performance scale. Does it result in a sustainable building? Does it function? Does the building work for the people who use it?

Do you think that’s because architects don’t explain well enough what they do?
I think that we’re good at explaining buildings, but I don’t think we’re good at explaining why we’ve made the choices we’ve made in designing a building. When I was at the Landmarks Commission, it was interesting to watch architects get up and describe what they were doing. In order to explain why a design is appropriate in an historic district, you need to cycle back and think about narrative. What’s the story of this site? What’s the story of the building? What’s the story of the company or the people who are going to use the building? You need to put this story together. Architects are picture people, but it’s a right-brain/left-brain kind of shift that needs to occur. We need to use both sides of our brain to be successful architects.

Your job as AIA NY president is to represent architects. So are you trying to help architects make the larger case that they are better qualified to design public spaces as well as buildings? Especially now, they’re all competing for public commissions.
I tend not to draw boundaries. My goal has always been to get the best environment in the public realm that we can get. If an architect can do the job, fine, but if a landscape architect has got a better answer, that’s fine too. As someone who has been a public servant, I understand that we have to look at a wide array of designers to get the best possible results, usually working in teams.

Architecture is often viewed as an extra benefit—if you can afford an architect, you get one; if not, you leave them out. How’s the architect supposed to deal with that situation?
It does initially cost more to hire an architect, but I’m hopeful in this current economic climate that we stop looking at quick returns or first costs. We need to look at a building’s entire life cycle. The value of having a design professional, whether it’s an architect or anybody else, is that there’s a value to including that person as part of your team, and that person’s cost is basically spread out over a much longer period. The most money we spend as adults is on our houses, our furniture, and we don’t teach anybody how to make choices for those items, which seems a bit insane. How can you create a consumer audience for design in this country when developers are only looking at whether a marble counter or a Corian counter is going to sell the house, instead of what material makes the most sense from an environmental and functional standpoint?

What other areas might architects be involved in, areas that currently are not thought of as being in their purview?
Every time a new elected official comes into office, they start making appointments. Rarely are architects included in the applicant pool. If we’re really looking for people who know how to analyze problems, know how to create a range of options, and know how to do the analysis to recommend an appropriate answer for the problem, architects are the people who can do that. What architects have not been trained to do is to talk about and articulate why those choices are rational. Broadening the pool of people that are considered as candidates for appointment to include architects is very important in any administration. The New York AIA is trying to motivate its members to volunteer to serve on community boards, because it’s a first step into the public realm. My path to public service was volunteering to be on different committees with outside industries like the real estate board. You widen the audience for architecture, and begin to understand how to communicate with the users of a building. It’s a sure way to be an advocate for architecture and good design.

Are architects equipped or trained to work in this kind of civic realm?
Yes. One of the things that was interesting to me as a Landmarks Commissioner was seeing the so-called star architects make their presentations. Without exception, those were the people who had the greatest skill at describing and presenting, or making a compelling story for their projects. It says to me that if Norman Foster and Aldo Rossi can be good at that, and also good at designing buildings, the two aren’t exclusive. It’s simply that not everyone is encouraged or asked to use both sides of the brain.

The skills of a really successful architect are rarely found in a single person, and sometimes not even in two people.
That’s why we have partnerships. It’s very hard to be a sole practitioner. I’ve watched Jim McCullar this year as president, and he’s exceptional because he’s one of those people who can speak very eloquently and also practice in a very compelling way on affordable housing. But when I look at our firm [PKSB], there are two partners, three principals, and it really does take all of us to do the kind of work that we want to do.

You’ve talked about being commissioner at Landmarks. What did you think about the preservation series that The New York Times did last December?
It was a lot of ink to no great effect. I don’t know what [Robin Pogrebin] was hoping to accomplish, and I think some of it was simply inaccurate. My experience of being both a commissioner and a chairman was that nobody ever told me what to do or what decisions to make, and I served two mayors. I was asked what did I think, and what would I recommend. And that went for everybody in City Hall, whether it was the mayor or the deputy mayors. The assertion that commissioners respond only to the mayor is just not accurate. Commissioners are voted on and approved by the city council, undergo background checks and conflict of interest evaluations by both City Hall and the city council, and must meet professional and residency requirements. So to be appointed to a job that pays you nothing is a pretty arduous path.

Pogrebin claimed in one piece covering the controversy over the Museum of Arts and Design that consultant Laurie Beckelman was sending Bob Tierney notes that influenced his decision. The article tried to make it seem like they were scheming to keep the building from receiving a hearing. Is this a normal part of the process of landmarking a building?
That charge has been made in print for a number of years. It was at the time that the advocacy groups tried to stop the museum from doing what they wanted to do. The courts rejected those charges. I’m not a judge, so I can’t say, but I don’t think there’s anything to it. Bob Tierney and Laurie Beckelman are friends of long acquaintance.

What do you think about the Landmarks Commission not landmarking the Edward Durrell Stone building at 2 Columbus Circle?
I was never in favor of landmarking it for the simple reason that the facade of the building could not be preserved. There was nothing from a technical point of view to protect. It had to come down, and you could say “Fine, we need to rebuild it.” That’s the way that we did it with the Lever House facade. I simply didn’t see this building as rising to that iconic level. I wrote a New York Times op-ed piece on the subject and I compared it to John Carl Warnecke’s buildings and Charles Luckman’s buildings in California which used similar kinds of material, and also had a few bits of quotations from other cultures.

What do you think of the new building?
I think adding the horizontal band of windows weakened the design of the facade, and I’m disappointed in the detailing. I like the building on the inside tremendously. One of the initiatives I’m promoting this year is a major landmarks exhibition. It will open on October 7, and will focus on new buildings in historic districts. It happened because Mark Silberman [counsel to the Landmarks Preservation Commission] called and said, “We’d really like to do an exhibition that explains how the commission looks at new buildings in historic districts.” It was critical to try to dig down and get a list of all the new buildings in historic districts, which is hard to do. The records of the commission are excellent from 1986 forward, when they got computerized, but before 1986, things were filed by address. And so you don’t really know whether it was a new building application or a window replacement application. You just don’t know. So it took a lot of work to assemble a list of buildings for review.

Designing a modern building in an historic district is a big issue in New York. Can you point to important precedents that show it’s possible to achieve?
The Hugh Hardy townhouse in the Village on the site of the building destroyed by the Weather Underground bomb is important. Brooklyn Heights probably has the most new buildings as a proportion of the district overall. The Brooklyn Heights Association, while very protective of their historic buildings, has always been a strong advocate for contemporary design.

What about Aldo Rossi’s Scholastic Press building in Soho? At the time it went up, I thought the Mercer Street facade was about as far as anyone could push for modern architecture in a historic district.
It opened the door to more modern designs because people saw the postmodern answer on Broadway and then they saw the modern or contemporary answer on Mercer Street and they all liked the Mercer side better.

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Parade's End
Gluckman Mayner's proposal mirrored the geometries of historic quarters along the Presidio parade ground.
Courtesy Gluckman Mayner

Dissent from the public and from preservationist groups over Gluckman Mayner Architects’ modernist-style proposal for a museum in the Presidio has succeeded in convincing Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap, to rethink the location, size, and architect for the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio (CAMP) they had proposed for the site at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. “The Fishers are going with [locally-based] WRNS Studio to do the redesign,” Alex Tourk, a spokesperson for the Fishers, told AN on January 20. “It’s their feeling that it would be best to go with a local firm after the new parameters were established in December.”

He added that the new design would include locating large portions of the museum underground and “significantly downsizing” the entire project, which was conceived as a work of contemporary architecture of the scale and stature of the de Young Fine Arts Museum in Golden Gate Park by Herzog & de Meuron.

Last summer, the Presidio Trust, a federal corporation established to oversee the 1,491-acre national park, had recommended the Fishers’ plan to build a $150 million museum for their collections alongside a historic parade ground known as the Main Post, to be designed by New York’s Gluckman Mayner Architects. A hodgepodge of historic buildings from five different eras now stand on the site, including brick barracks from the 1890s and a Mission-style officers’ club. The Gluckman Mayner proposal was a two-story shifted glass box designed to mirror the formal geometries of the Main Post and echo the white-columned arcades of nearby barracks with vertical white mullions.

Following a prolonged and complicated environmental impact review and public concerns that the Trust had not fully addressed the potential impact of the new museum, which is located within a National Historic Landmark District, the San Francisco Planning Commission wrote a letter to the city attorney’s office arguing that “the design of the proposed contemporary art museum and the associated landscape plan is too stark of a contrast to the buildings and spaces that would flank it.”

On December 5, Donald Fisher agreed to consider major alterations to the Gluckman Mayner design, including different materials, a reduced scale with some portions underground, and the relocation to a site about 100 yards across the road. According to a spokesperson at Gluckman Mayner, “We worked with a large amount of flexibility. We were not pig-headed, nor did we say that it had to be white masonry and glass.” He added that the design was undertaken even as the Trust was still developing its design guidelines, further complicating the process.

“The Trust was a partner in finding the site that we designed for,” the spokesperson said. “If we had all seen that a different site was a solution, we would have gone down that road.” As for putting much of the museum underground, he said, “Don said from the start that he wanted to build a museum because he never wanted his collection to be stashed in basement storage.” He added that it was “a bit of a surprise” to hear that WRNS, formerly the associate architects on the Gluckman Mayner scheme, was now redesigning the project. Calls to WRNS Studio had not been returned as of press time. Tourk said that a new scheme would be released in March.

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Holy Furor
Courtesy All Saints Church

Amid clashing visions for Pasadena’s historic civic center, a proposed expansion to the All Saints Episcopal Church by Richard Meier & Partners was rebuffed for the second time in six months by the Pasadena Planning Commission on December 10.

Meier’s master plan for the church mapped out the addition of four buildings, measuring about 68,000 square feet, to the church’s 2.8-acre site in Pasadena’s historic district. The plan would leave the exterior of the church’s cloister intact, while facilitating interior renovations of the parish hall and rectory. New development would be centered around a two-level, cylindrical-shaped assembly building for worship opening onto an expansive plaza. Other development would be rectilinear in form and include a two-story building with offices, conference rooms, and an outdoor cafe; a three-story daycare and youth center; and a six-story senior housing building. The plan also called for multiple outdoor courtyards and gardens. Few specific design details have been released, although materials were described during the public presentation including stone quarried from Bouquet Canyon to match the cloister’s facade, a copper sunscreen, architectural concrete, and tubular steel railings.

In its action, the commission not only declined to approve the church’s master plan as presented but reversed a previous decision—made on May 28, 2008—which had allowed the church to file a Mitigated Negative Declaration, which would have been far less cumbersome than filing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The action also came after the city’s Design Commission, charged with making recommendations to the Planning Commission, had approved the project on October 13.

“It is difficult not to think that the planning commissioners came into the meeting already having made a decision against us,” said the church’s rector, Ed Bacon, responding to AN via e-mail. “We had followed all of their rules and suggestions and then they changed the rules. It was frustrating in light of the fact that we’re trying to make an important contribution to the community, both in ministry and architecture.”

According to Keith Holeman, a spokesperson for All Saints, the church will continue to pursue approval of a master plan for expansion, but has yet to decide upon the best route. “There are potholes that you go through here,” noted Holeman. “Disappointments along the way. But we’re also very positive about the project.” (Meier's office referred requests for comment to the church.)

Several options now lie before All Saints: follow the planning commission’s requests and return to the commission with a new master plan and an EIR, or make their case before Pasadena’s city council with or without a completed EIR.

Though representatives of the church claimed the project complied with directives given by the commission in May (after the first rejection of the plan), the commission sided with community residents like Marsha Rood, who asked at the December 10 meeting: “Should Pasadena look like new development, or new development look like Pasadena?” Rood, who served as the city’s development administrator from 1982 to 2000, said that the endeavor violated the 2004 Central District Specific Plan, enacted to protect the area surrounding Pasadena’s civic center—which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She contended that Meier’s plan did not pursue a relationship with the civic center, which sits directly across the street from the church, and violated the scale, massing, and rhythms delineated in the specific plan as well as the palette of materials and colors.

The specific plan does call for designers to maintain stylistic unity for civic buildings and draw inspiration from classical Italian and Spanish models, but it also states: “this should not prevent contemporary interpretations responsive to the Southern California environment.” It is unclear when the church and its architect may return to make its case for contemporary architecture in Pasadena.

The linear plan would cluster development opposite a new cylindrical assembly building.
 Images courtesy All Saints Church

The proposed ground plan. 
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Show Me the Way
Fordham's Michael Goncalves envisioned a bulls-eye design to create legibility from all angles.
Julia Galef

Not long ago, graphic designer Sylvia Harris emerged from a Midtown Manhattan subway station with two friends, and, without exchanging a word, they each turned right. Later, the group realized they had all fixed their direction using different methods: One had read the street signs; one had looked for the Empire State Building; and one had checked the angle of Broadway cutting across the avenue.

On December 9, Harris and other experts weighed in on an official orientation system to help New Yorkers figure uptown from downtown. Joined by design consultant Mark Randall and Grand Central Partnership spokesman Mark Wurzel, the three helped kick off an exhibition at the Center for Architecture of design proposals from students at NYU, Fordham, FIT, and Pratt, all of whom had been invited by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to take a crack at this time-honored urban conundrum.

Among the designs on exhibit, Fordham’s Lydia Orsi and Elushika Weerakoon used tactile materials that could be felt underfoot.

NYU’s team added local flavor, with icons of nearby landmarks and colors that reflect neighborhood subway lines.

The dot's original compass decal, featured in a 2007 pilot project.

As DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, herself on hand for the occasion, pointed out, even the most grizzled New Yorkers can get confused when emerging from a subway station. Two years ago, the agency rolled out a pilot program of compass-like decals to help orient pedestrians, and while public response was positive, dozens of new suggestions poured in, sending the DOT back to the drawing board.

So what might this sidewalk system look like? Several teams worked within the original compass motif. One FIT concept showed a ring labeling the general neighborhoods lying in each direction, while Fordham’s Michael Goncalves envisioned the subway station at the center of a bull’s-eye. A second Fordham design used a circle of gray rubber, with raised metal dots representing nearby streets and landmarks. More traditionally, Pratt’s designers made the case for comprehensively detailed maps, and NYU’s team, the most adventurous of them all, designed a sprawling cluster of arrows to encourage forward movement.

At the opening for the exhibit, which runs through January 24, experts had both praise and criticism for the designs. Randall admired several teams’ use of imagery—such as NYU’s pagoda silhouette that paid homage to Chinatown—since images can reflect local character while crossing linguistic barriers. But other panelists argued that images can be problematic, since not all neighborhoods have iconic landmarks, and if a landmark should change, the whole design might get scrapped. On the other hand, more literal map-like designs would probably be too complicated. Fordham’s clear and intuitive bulls-eye scheme won plaudits on that count. As Randall summed up, “This really should be an opportunity to develop a new symbolic language.”

Some of the most spirited debate ensued not over which design to use, but which materials to craft it with. “We like bronze because it’s easy to maintain, it can be removed, and it reflects the classic landmark nature of our community,” said Wurzel. But bronze plaques would cost upwards of $7,000 each, and since the DOT has suggested having business improvement districts in each community fund their own signage, bronze could be too costly for some neighborhoods. And some audience members argued that the orientation device should be placed at eye-level, where people naturally look, rather than in the pavement, as is the current plan. (The DOT is studying the proposals and has not yet set a timeline for the project's final design.) 

There is some question whether design is even the best solution. A large part of the cure for New Yorkers’ disorientation may, in fact, be other New Yorkers. Harris described how, in a similar project she worked on, she frequently observed people soliciting directions from uniformed sanitation workers picking up trash near the subway. “So we could think about training them to be wayfinders,” she suggested, “because they actually liked that part of their job the best.”

Measure for Measure

On Election Day across the country, citizens registered their votes for major changes in the White House and Congress. But change will also soon come to California’s built environment, as several major initiatives facing California transit, infrastructure, and development were approved or denied. 

On the statewide ballot, Proposition 1A passed with 52.3 percent approval, meaning a high-speed train linking San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento—and most major cities in between—could be ferrying passengers at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour by 2030. While a whopping $9.95 billion in state bonds was allocated by the proposition, development cannot continue until matching funds are secured from federal, local, and private sources. A business plan for the program was released on November 7, equating it in scale to the State Water Project, the world’s largest public water and power system, funded by a 1960 bond measure. California High Speed Rail Authority chairman Quentin Kopp called the proposition’s approval a “21st-century golden spike." 

Once funding is secured, the Authority will focus first on the LA-to-San Francisco “backbone” segment. Environmental impact reports have been completed for the route and alignments chosen, with the exception of the Northern Mountain Crossing connection between San Jose or Oakland and the Central Valley.

In Los Angeles County, another major transit proposal, Measure R, reported 67.93 percent voter approval when a 2/3 majority was needed. The 30-year, half-cent sales tax increase will fund improvements and expansions for light rail and subway lines, HOV lanes, freeways, and traffic reduction. According to Metro spokesman Rick Jager, the tax will go into effect next July, and citizens could start to see evidence immediately, since a portion of the funds will go directly to LA-area city governments. “The local return is an important element because these 88 cities will start getting their 15 percent share from the tax that’s generated,” he said, noting that many cities had plans for street resurfacing, pothole repairs, improving left-hand signals, pedestrian improvements, and bikeways. It also postpones a planned Metro fare increase to 2010.

The rest of the funds generated by Measure R will be available in 2010, when the major projects up for funding will be an extension of the Gold Line that goes to Azusa (the first six-mile extension of the Gold Line, begun in 2004, is on budget and on schedule to open in the summer of 2009), the Green Line extension to LAX, and the second phase of the light rail Expo Line stretching from downtown LA to Santa Monica. The first segment of the Expo Line’s route from downtown to Culver City is scheduled to open in 2010, and with this burst of funding, it could reach Santa Monica as early as 2013. Later, funding will become available for the Purple Line or “Subway to the Sea” extension in 2013.

In Santa Monica, the hotly-contested Proposition T, which would have limited development in the city to under 75,000 square feet annually, was defeated 55.92 percent to 44.08 percent. This was a relief to many architects and developers who had fought hard against the measure, including Gwynne Pugh of Pugh + Scarpa, who, in his role on Santa Monica’s planning commission, will address Proposition T’s concerns in the city’s new Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which is currently in environmental impact reviews. “The LUCE has addressed this issue by stating that there will be a goal of ‘no new net trips,’” he said. “Unlike previous plans, this will be monitored, and development phased as resources are developed such as the Expo Line.”

After Beverly Hills’ city council approved a 12-story, 170-room Waldorf-Astoria hotel and two condo buildings on the site of the Beverly Hilton in May, opposed residents gathered enough signatures to put the decision on the ballot as Measure H. After results were too close to call for several weeks, on December 2 the city certified that Measure H had been approved by 129 votes, meaning that an architectural design review and tract map will move forward as planned.

In San Francisco, Proposition B, which would have required the city to set aside 2.5 cents for every $100 of assessed value over the next 15 years for affordable housing, failed 47.4 percent to 52.6 percent. This was disheartening to housing advocates and the city’s Board of Supervisors, who strongly urged its approval to prevent what they called an “affordable housing crisis” due to budgetary concerns. Proposition B would have allocated $30 million to help house those making less than $18,000. According to housing advocate Calvin Welch, the budget currently only reserves $3 million for affordable housing. Mayor Gavin Newsom was one of the strongest opponents of Prop B, arguing that it was unnecessary.

And while its outcome did not directly impact architects, another Measure R, this one also in San Francisco, was certainly a topic of conversation for anyone working in infrastructure: This ballot initiative that would have renamed a Bay Area sewage plant in honor of President George W. Bush was soundly defeated.

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The Long Arrivederci

The Venice biennale will just not end! It opened in the warmth of September with mobs of well-known architects in attendance and officially closed on a cold November Sunday with scores of Italian schoolchildren roaming the pavilion grounds. I locked the doors of the U.S. Pavilion, put models and drawings into shipping containers (the show will be reprised at Parsons School of Design in February), and floated our Kartell-donated furniture down the Grand Canal on a barge—just in time for the highest floods in La Serenissima’s post–global warming history. Fortunately, the pavilion sits on high ground, and the stored work is safe.

The pavilion's furniture in stylish transit.

But there were pieces of the pavilion (story boards and a long blue table) not being returned to the States, and these we donated to a group called Commons Beyond Building (a collective whose members include Stalker, 2012, Millegomme, and EXYST), who were commissioned to create RE-Biennale: a recycled artwork of objects from the architecture biennale to be placed in the upcoming art biennale in June. Now we hear from biennale curator Emiliano Gandolfi that La Biennale di Venezia believes the project will be too costly, and are shutting it down. The group is appealing to art curator Daniel Birnbaum to rescue the effort.

Meanwhile, as we were closing the biennale, a water taxi roared up, and out stepped architecture critic, philosopher, and Venice Mayor Massimo Cacciari, who scurried off to a meeting in the Accademia. The Venetian water taxis—absolutely the most elegant form of public transportation imaginable—are designed and built by a company called Riva, which is in New York this week at the Javits boat show. Riva sent along a photo of one of their boats with BB, and a temporary showroom in Rockefeller Center in 1964. A used wooden Riva is yours for just $500,000.

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Rough Waters
Locals fear the aging marina, once a
courtesy Marina Del Rey CVB

With proposed development in Marina Del Rey that could add more than 3,700 residential units and 630 new hotel rooms, the County of Los Angeles has officially begun a process to determine whether it would adopt recent California Coastal Commission recommendations to limit and examine development and bring the marina’s Local Coastal Plan (LCP) into compliance with the California Coastal Act.

On October 29, the county held a meeting to gather public input about the Coastal Commission’s 67 recommendations—made on October 16—concerning density and urban planning. These included changing land use designations of parks or parking lots; a comprehensive study of anticipated future development; and incentives for free or lower-cost public uses on waterfront parcels. While the county is not required to follow the recommendations, it must provide the commission with a report specifying its reasons for not following them.

As the aging marina—once a bastion of stewardesses when air travel was the sleek new way to travel—has been slated for updates and new development, the county has faced increasingly contentious opposition to its handling of the roughly 950-acre marina, initially financed through a publicly-funded bond measure.

Underlying community objections is the fact that the county both owns the marina’s property and controls all planning in the area. Officials negotiate terms of leases with developers in closed-door sessions, leaving the public and urban planners with little capability to adjust those terms once they reach the design process. The Coastal Commission has therefore been viewed as a non-partisan decision-maker.

“The county is the landlord on every property, and development partner on every property,” noted Steve Freedman, a Venice resident who lives just feet from the marina’s property line. “I think there’s a term for that—conflict of interest.”

Freedman’s assertion is disputed by David Sommers, a spokesperson for County Supervisor Don Knappe, whose 4th district includes the marina. Sommers said the dual role, which dates back approximately 50 years, was “not a conflict,” and all decisions made by the Board of Supervisors are reviewed by several other entities.

But in October, the Board of Supervisors shifted some responsibilities, as well as the meetings of the local review board known as the Design Control Board (DCB), to the county’s regional planning commission downtown. A person familiar with the decision who agreed to speak with AN on condition of anonymity believed the move was partially to limit decisions that ran against developer interests, as in the case of the Woodfin Hotel. initially slated to be situated on protected wetlands. Though the project is now moving forward, the Design Control Board delayed its approval, requiring that its site plan be changed.

In an e-mail to AN, Susan Cloke, the Design Control Board’s chair said, “The recent action, removing site plan and conceptual review from the board’s authority, diminishes our ability to help the marina become all that it could be.” Cloke cited recreational activities like boating, walking, and cycling, essential to producing income for the area, that had been sidelined in favor of residential and commercial development.

“The magnificent thing about the marina is that it was designed as a resort for daily life,” observed John Chase, co-author of the book Everyday Urbanism. “But because the marina is county territory… there is little local control and accountability for the nature and quality of development there.”

According to Gina M. Natoli, supervising regional planner with the County of Los Angeles, the county will address the commission’s recommendation for a comprehensive study of development and the DCB will continue to exercise design review authority after the county has approved site plans. Among those on the DCB are planners like Simon Pastucha, whom Gail Goldberg appointed to the Urban Design Studio to set a design criteria system for walkable streets in the City of Los Angeles.

Additionally, the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors is planning a study on the cumulative effect of all redevelopment projects that are in the proprietary or regulatory processes, according to Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director. The review will study the impacts of such large projects as the 19-story, 424-room and time-share unit Woodfin, large residential projects like a 544-unit apartment complex, and large-scale restaurants, retail, and mixed use.

The county’s October 29 public meeting also kicked off a series of working groups organized to review the Coastal Commission recommendations and report their input to the county’s Board of Supervisors. Natoli anticipates the county will complete its response to the Coastal Commission’s recommendations by October 2009.

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Towering Over Philly
The American Commerece Center would Redefine the Philadelphia Skyline.
Courtesy KPF

For nearly a century, City Hall, with William Penn atop it, stood as the tallest building in Philadelphia. For decades, skyscrapers there flirted with the 548-foot height of the Absolute Proprietor but never surpassed him—part of a "gentleman's agreement," not a law, as commonly thought. In 1987, the 945-foot One Liberty Place broke the limit, but that tower, too, may soon be dwarfed. Though still in its earliest development stages, the KPF-designed American Commerce Center aspires to rise above them all, to 1,510 feet.

Beyond its height, the scale of the project is immense, nearly 2.2 million square feet of office, hotel, and retail space rising from a relatively small 62,000-square-foot lot. This density of development has drawn the ire of many locals, but the unanimous passage of a rezoning of the lot on Tuesday by the Philadelphia Planning Commission proves that, at least in spirit, the city supports the project.

The new tower is meant to be a beacon
for a new philadelphia.
All images courtesy KPF

"It's an aggressive proposal—aggressive in a good way," Alan Greenberger, executive director of the commission, said in an interview after the vote. "They're asking for a lot of density and that makes people nervous, and I understand that. The question is, is this the place for that density. I think that today's vote indicates that, yes, it is."

The City Council will now hold a hearing on the rezoning December 4 with a vote due by December 10; Greenberger said he expects the council to support it. The developer, Hill International of Marlton, New Jersey, then has one year to create a Plan of Development—which fleshes out the project in more detail and allows for more specific tweaks by the commission—before the rezoning's sunset clause takes effect. Because of the slumping economy, though, the commission will allow Hill to apply for an extension.

During the developer's presentation, Peter Kelso, Hill's counsel on the project, said its purpose was to allow Philadelphia to join the business capitals of the world, like New York, London, and, yes, Dubai. "We need to move into a more modern realm of office development," he said.

KPF founder Gene Kohn spoke on behalf of the architects, saying the American Commerce Center had a significance even greater than that. "Every great city has its icon," he declared, mentioning the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Eiffel Tower. "Philly has one in its own right, in City Hall, which was once the world's tallest building," he said, though he added that a new era also calls for a new icon.

(They also showed a rather intense video for the project, which has since been posted to YouTube, that offers a pretty good sense of what the project might someday look like to a bird.)

Support for the project has been evenly split between businesses and younger residents in favor, while some neighbors and preservationists tend to oppose it. Back in July, the commission heard three hours of testimony to this effect, but at the most recent meeting, opposition was more muted. The project's strongest critics, residents of a co-op across the street, did show up, however, to give an impassioned presentation denouncing it as an overbuilt traffic disaster.

"It's the same old story—the developer says they want the biggest in the world, or at least the city, and we are forced to wrap our arms around it," Joseph Beller, the resident's attorney, told the commission. He added, "This is a wonderful building. If you found a place for it, I would love it. But this is not the place for it."

Not that anything on this scale has ever been built anywhere else in the city, hence the rezoning. It takes the parcel at 19th Street and Arch Street, which is currently a parking lot, from a classification of C4, with a special height limit of 125 feet, to C5. The latter allows for a floor-area ratio of 12 with a bonus of 8 for the inclusion of a public plaza covering 30 percent. (The cutout at the center of the project not only divides the office tower from the hotel but also accounts for 22 percent of this public space in an elevated courtyard). The developer is then seeking an additional bonus of 4 FAR through standard public amenities like off-street parking and public restrooms.

Under the current code, the project could not get any bigger, but because of sustainable features and other amenities, like a regional rail link, the developer hopes to secure an additional 3.5 FAR, to reach an unprecedented density of 27.5. The commission said it was not opposed to this idea, as its final vote indicated, though it would probably seek to codify such bonuses for general consumption instead of simply confering them upon a single developer. "Our zoning code has actually created more obstacles to large-scale development," commissioner Natalia Olson de Savyckyj said, "not less."

The bigger concern now, amidst the economic downturn, is whether or not the project can actually get built. "Everyone's wondering, 'Is it real?'" Greenberger said in the interview. But he also noted that the developer pushed for the rezoning because without it, Hill could not reasonably attract financing or tenants.

"Would we be spending this kind of money and resources putting this project before the commission and the City Council if we didn't believe this project was coming to fruition?" Kelso told AN. "It shows a commitment on the part of the developer to see it through."

Matt Chaban

If completed, the project will be the densest in recent city history.
One of the ways it achieves such density is by dedicating 30 percent of its footprint to public space, which is cleverly achieved through a series of courtyards cut into the building.
The progression of the Philadelphia skyline (From Left to Right): one liberty place, the comcast center, the american commerce center, Arch street presbyterian church, philadelphia city hall, and independence hall.


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The Plot Thickens
A proposal from the show Camp:Reconsidered would move the new museum under the Main Post.
Courtesy Mark Horton/Architecture

In a blow to the proposed Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio (CAMP), the San Francisco Planning Commission recently issued negative comments regarding the Presidio Trust’s plan to build the Richard Gluckman–designed structure in the heart of the former military barracks.

In a letter to the City Attorney’s office dated October 30, the commission stated that the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Presidio Trust Management Plan was inadequate and that it did not fully address the impact of a new museum situated within a National Historic Landmark District. Further, it stated that “the design of the proposed contemporary art museum and the associated landscape plan is too stark of a contrast to the buildings and spaces that would flank it.”

This is a minor victory for the Presidio Historical Association, an ad hoc coalition that has been organizing an ongoing effort against Don and Doris Fisher’s $150 million museum, a white contemporary structure that emphasizes the formal geometries of the Presidio’s Main Post, or former parade ground. As an alternative, it is proposing a history center on the same parade ground site that presents the history of the Presidio, while replicating the barracks typology of the Main Post grounds.

However, the Planning Commission also stated that none of the alternate proposals, including the history center, were a reasonable alternative to the proposed project. Instead, it urged the completion of the Section 106 National Historic Preservation Act review, a mandatory impact review required of all properties listed on the National Register. It felt that Alternative 1, a visitor and community center using the existing buildings, would have the least impact of the four schemes.

While the Planning Commission acknowledged that it has no direct jurisdiction over the federal lands of the Presidio, it urged the Trust to consider the scheme within the plans and policies outlined in the city’s General Plan. The public comment period on the project ended on November 17, and a final decision by the Presidio Trust’s board of directors is expected toward the end of this year.

As an alternative to the often-contentious atmosphere of the CAMP discussions, architect Mark Horton has invited several local architects to present concepts for an alternate vision of a Presidio museum at his 3A Gallery in the South Park district. Architects on board for the show Camp:Reconsidered include Leddy Maytum Stacy, Anne Fougeron, and Kuth/Ranieri Architects. Rather than show finished schemes, the projects—which include a proposal to locate the new museum under the Main Post, and one to locate the museum’s collection in multiple towers scattered around the Presidio—are intended to provide the basis for a more rational and considered discussion of the various issues of a new design within an historic site. The exhibition opened on November 20 and will run until December 23 at the gallery, on 101 South Park.

Gehl to New York: Lose the Cars

When the Danish urban-design guru Jan Gehl visited New York a few years ago, he was struck by how little the city had changed since the 1970s—“as if Robert Moses had only just walked out the door!” But since that visit, as Gehl recalled last night at the Center for Architecture, New York has made a surprising about-face on matters of public space, embracing the ideals of his late friend (and Moses nemesis) Jane Jacobs.

Gehl was holding forth in a town-hall-style meeting with New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has played no small role in challenging the dominance of the automobile in New York, and who hired Gehl Architects last year to study the quality of public life on the city’s streets. She and Gehl articulated their shared vision for keeping New York globally competitive by making its streets some of the best in the world. “We can’t afford to slip into a Yogi Berra situation,” said Sadik-Khan, “where New York becomes so crowded that nobody goes there anymore!”

Unfortunately, Gehl continued, New York still bears deep scars of Moses’ long reign. His team’s findings (in a report distributed on eco-friendly USB drives, naturally) highlighted telltale signals of poor-quality street life: pedestrian crowding, low frequencies of stationary activities, and low proportions of children and elderly on the sidewalks. Partly to blame are a sad dearth of sidewalk cafes, along with far too much scaffolding and too many shuttered facades. (The stretch of Broadway from Columbus Circle to Houston Street—one of the busiest in the city—has only six curbside cafes, and scaffolding obscures 30 percent of its buildings.) Gehl’s team also deplored the fact that many public spaces don’t link to their surrounding streets and buildings, but instead require a deliberate trip—often across traffic—to reach them.

Still, Gehl expressed unhesitating enthusiasm about the city’s potential. “You are absolutely lucky here!” he exclaimed. “You have such wide streets. So you can have nice comfortable wide sidewalks, street trees, bike lanes. Maybe even,” he allowed with a grin, “also some lanes for the cars.”

And what about the economic crisis? Can we really afford to pour money into prettifying our streets at a time like this? Streetscapes, it turns out, may be just the right focus for urban investment at the moment. “It is very cost-effective for us to make these changes,” Sadik-Khan emphasized. That’s partly because many DOT projects can be achieved at relatively minimal cost—but also because, as Gehl’s research has shown time and again, pedestrian-friendly streets boost nearby property values and deliver more customers to local businesses.

So how far is New York prepared to go toward pedestrian nirvana? When one audience member asked if the city had given any thought to closing off Broadway to cars entirely, there was a smattering of applause—and then came Sadik-Khan’s reply, which more or less translated to fuhgeddaboudit.

All the same, it was impossible not to feel a touch of exhilaration at the city’s new trajectory. “I am quite sure that in her heaven,” as Gehl told the crowd, “Jane Jacobs is looking down and thinking, ‘Finally, my city is on the right track!’”