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Emerging Voices 2008

 WORK AC
New York, New York

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If being chosen as part of the Emerging Voices series is a coming-of-age mark for small firms, P.S.1’s Young Architects Program has become another, with the added benefit of a summer’s worth of DJs and beer. Each spring, the museum chooses a firm to build a temporary installation in the courtyard that can accommodate its Saturday series, Warm Up, essentially a hip block party. WORK AC’s Public Farm 1 got the nod this year for a proposal that brings sustainable agriculture back to the city. A sloping structure made of cardboard tubes (left and bottom left) will incorporate planters with flowers and vegetables for harvest, rainwater basins for crop irrigation, and solar panels for cell-phone-charging stations and the like in the shade below. According to principals Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, they have details to work out, but that is in keeping with the spirit of the series: With its short time frame and modest $70,000 budget, each year’s winner has a chance for on-the-fly experimenting.

The issues WORK is grappling with at P.S.1 are ones that Andraos and Wood have been thinking about for a while. In particular, they are concerned with finding new ways to bring ecologically minded design to an urban level. “For us, it is more than a formal experiment,” explained Andraos, “it is a reflection of what is going on around us,” from the citywide popularity of farmer’s markets to the mayor’s PLANYC 2030 campaign to make New York more green. They have clearly hit on something, because in the first 24 hours after their selection was announced, Woods said they received hundreds of emails, including many that weren’t from architects. There was a man who has been running a farm in Queens, a high school teacher who has incorporated agriculture into the curriculum, and even staffers at the local botanical gardens. “It is as if we stumbled onto a whole network of people who are interested in this issue and what we are doing,” said Wood. 





JOHNSEN SCHMALING ARCHITECTS
Milwaukee, Wisconsin



Though all of the big breweries in Milwaukee are gone except for Miller, beer and its production marked the city indelibly, according to Sebastian Schmaling. “The old beer barons were often great patrons of the arts, and there are wonderful old bars downtown that have amazingly detailed interiors,” he said. In fact, his five-year-old firm, Johnsen Schmaling Architects, has made its office in one of them. One of the firm’s larger residential projects is a renovation of an old Blatz brewery building into apartments. In a subtle reference to the building’s past, the architects created screens in the lobby that hold 1,600 of the original old Blatz bottles that they found stored in the building’s basement. The panels pivot into place to separate the lounge from the main entrance, and light washes down to illuminate the amber glass (below, left and right) “We didn’t want to bring it to a frat-boy level of humor, of course, and the bottles are the only reference, but it is part of the cultural history here,” said Schmaling.


 
 
The use of the bottles is also indicative of the way that Schmaling and partner Tim Johnsen think about context, and how they bring it into their work. “Context is an overused word,” said Schmaling, “but if you can read a site more poetically and less literally, you can develop a language that guides you through the project.” Another building that takes this approach is the Camouflage House in Green Lake, Wisconsin (above). “We were lucky to be able to spend a lot of time on the site, even camping out on weekends, and began to look at the verticality of the trees, the patterns of bark, and the colors through the seasons,” Schmaling said. The finished house echoes the solid-and-void pattern that one gets when looking through trees to the water, rooting the house to its site in the woods. 





ONION FLATS
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

onion flats  
For any architect caught between a client and a contractor—at some point, that’s every architect—the idea of jettisoning both must seem tempting. The Philadelphia-based firm Onion Flats has managed to do just that, and for partner Tim McDonald, there’s no turning back. “Life is short,” said McDonald, “and we have no interest in going back and forth over color or material or budget. We control everything, straight down to the finances, and actually get a lot more accomplished.” While they sometimes form joint ventures, as they did for the Rag Flats (left and bottom left) housing, Onion Flats maintains a primary role. To do so, the firm evolved from a more traditional design/ build model into one with a
 
development arm called Onion Flats, a design practice called Plumb Bob, and a contracting and construction management firm called Jig. The three are intimately connected, allowing McDonald and his partners (two of whom are his brothers) to rethink the way they work. “Typically, a drawing set has to define 100 percent of a project, but we want our building sites to be creative places, so we have often kept ours smaller, making seven drawings as opposed to 30,” he said. McDonald explained that this lets the team respond with agility to the facts on site, which are rarely identical to those on paper. 

As the scale of the projects they take on grows—they are currently working on a 70-unit residential building called Stable Flats—their drawing sets are getting more detailed, but the underlying thinking remains the same. “On Stable Flats, we had to rethink the process some, and partnered with a company that makes modular steel and concrete structures,” he said. This foray into prefabrication will let the scale and complexity of projects continue to grow while maintaining the same level of control. If it sounds like a lot, it is, according to McDonald, but it is also worth it: “It is so hard to build something, that this just makes life easier,” he said, and “by taking on more risk, you actually reduce the stress, because you have full responsibility.” 






EL DORADO 
Kansas City, Missouri

 

el dorado
Think, for a moment, about how many architecture jokes you know, even ones involving severe black eyeglasses. There aren’t many, and for good reason: As a group, architects typically take themselves seriously. Not so Dan Maginn and his partners at el dorado, a Kansas City–based design and fabrication firm. “There is nothing less funny than a building that tries to explore humor,” he said, “but there is nothing funnier than a group of people trying to do something in an environment that isn’t set up for it.” Architecture is a tough business, said Maginn, and if you can’t hang on to some humor and humility, it’s not worth it. Maginn and his partners have set up their firm to make sure they can do just that.

According to Maginn, about 25 percent of el dorado’s work is custom fabrication, though the ability to design and produce fixtures informs almost all their work. “Designing and building things in steel satisfies a core need for a lot of us—making is crucial,” he explained. There is a 
full metal shop in the studio, and this allows the architects to test and prototype details before going on-site. “We have a lot of respect for good contractors, and as fabricators, we can form a relationship with them that is really helpful for the project,” he said. It also means that el dorado can use prefabricated elements to stay within budget, as it did for the Cox Communications (top right) and the Hodgdon Power offices (bottom right), both in Kansas.

The 14-person firm is set up as a confederacy of designers, fabricators, and artists, and on each project, one individual leads the design process and gets the input of the rest. “We can help each other and judge each other, and also make use of a design language we have already developed,” said Maginn. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel each time, but this way, each project pushes that language forward a few steps.” 





MOS 
New Haven, Connecticut

MOS

When the architect Michael Meredith got a fellowship at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, about ten years ago, the work he produced there was somewhat off the beaten architectural path: He designed a series of cushions for Donald Judd’s beautiful but ungiving furniture and wrote a series of theme songs for some friends. Nonetheless, Meredith said that much of the work he and his partner Hilary Sample are working on today has its roots back in Texas. “A lot of it comes from the people we met there,” said Meredith, like the Ancram Studio in Upstate New York (below). “The art world has been good to us,” said Meredith.

 
 
Some work comes over the transom, though not always in the standard way. A wrong number led to one MOS project that is tethered to the shore of Lake Huron in Vancouver (above). Designed for a couple, the house floats a few feet from the water’s edge on massive steel pontoons that can also be used as ballast when partially filled with water. Flexible couplings for utilities and waste allow the house to rise and fall with the lake level, which can fluctuate dramatically over the course of a year. “Climate change has really affected Lake Huron,” said Meredith.

The house may be one of MOS’ more traditional projects. “Because we both teach full-time [Sample at Yale; Meredith at Harvard’s GSD] we often gravitate towards the marginal and weird,” said Meredith, who then tried to explain what an inflatable factory/ theater/community center in Newfoundland might look like. “We don’t really have bread-and-butter projects,” he explained. But the ones they have are interesting: MOS is one of the one hundred young firms chosen by Jacques Herzog of Herzog & de Meuron to design houses for Ordos, a brand new city for 1.6 million in Mongolia. Though he is no stranger to some of the odder edges of his profession, Meredith was still impressed: “Walking around there is like being in some postapocalyptic movie—there are buildings and museums, but not always roads, and there is just no one there.”





BELZBERG ARCHITECTS 
Santa Monica California

belzberg architects

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Hagy Belzberg’s big break came when his firm was commissioned to do a 12,000-square-foot interior at Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The building was widely praised by the press, and Belzberg got a share of it for his warm and curvilinear wooden interiors (left). But just as important as the exposure was the sense of possibility it opened: “It gave us the confidence to pursue more complicated forms,” said Belzberg.

Like many of his contemporaries, Belzberg is a huge supporter of the technologies that allow him to pursue innovative forms without seeing them as an end of their own. “We only take on work that can be built, because there is a real joy in building,” he said. “You can’t get seduced by the image of what the software allows you to imagine—it’s good to have limits like budget, program, and building code.”

One project currently beginning construction is the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (above), and for Belzberg, it presented the most productive constraint of all: a public client. They decided to submerge the building underground to keep from losing any open space, and so worked very closely with the LA Department of Parks and Recreation, which he described as a collaborator on the project. “They weren’t an approving body, but they acted as a design review board on every major decision,” Belzberg said, adding that it was an invaluable part of the process because they were so well-acquainted with the many constituencies. “As architects, we sit in the office all day thinking we know what all of the voices out there are saying, but we don’t. Working with a public agency made us much more sensitive.”





STOSS LANDSCAPE
URBANISM 

Boston, Massachusetts

stoss landscape

 

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A stoss is a geological term describing the side of a landscape that has borne the brunt of a glacier’s force, and it comes from the German word for “push.” There are ruder translations, too, according to principal Chris Reed, and while he wasn’t aware of them when he launched Stoss Landscape Urbanism eight years ago, the mix makes sense. Reed described his firm’s approach to the design of landscapes large and small as inventive about a place’s nature and willing to bring flexibility into urban spaces. So why not have that in a name, too? 

A playground in Quebec called the Safe Zone (top right) makes good on that approach. The brownfield site needed to be sealed off for safety, so Stoss designed a series of mounds covered in soft rubber pips made out of sneaker soles and old tires, creating a brightly colored landscape that doesn’t dictate how the kids who play there will use it. For Perkins Park in Somerville, Massachusetts, (bottom right) Reed described watching the way his own children horse around and make use of whatever catches their eye, and so he incorporated a series of overlaid patterns and colors into the design that don’t dictate what the game should be. “We wanted to provide a full palette of colors and textures and forms to give a sense of free play,” said Reed.

The same sensibility informs larger projects like the Erie Street Plaza in Green Bay, Wisconsin (top), albeit in a more adult way. “Sometimes you have to let the environmental conditions or bureaucratic conditions determine the way a project evolves over time,” he said. The Fox Riverfront in Dennis, Massachusetts is perhaps the most representative of this ethos: Reed described a landscape whose different parts will essentially duke it out over the years. Four conditions—salt marsh, cedar meadow, junegrass, and a filtration meadow—will grow or shrink as drought or municipal maintenance budgets allow. “If the town can’t afford to mow, then perhaps the cedars will grow into the junegrass, or if there is heavy rainfall, then perhaps the salt marsh will expand.” Either way, Stoss is willing to let it play out.





MOORHEAD & MOORHEAD 
New York, New York

moorhead & moorhead

Sometimes architects test out ideas by making furniture, and industrial designers often itch to work at an architectural scale, but for Moorhead & Moorhead, this regular back and forth is a given: The two-man firm consists of brothers Granger and Robert Moorhead, the former an architect and the latter an industrial designer. “Each discipline has its own logic,” explained Granger, “and that logic connects material to program. In architecture, there is a logic to detailing in the field, whereas industrial designers are detailing for production.”

According to the Moorheads, who have worked together for eight years, they try to approach each project—be it the residential compound in Uruguay they are just completing or the rubber lamp they designed for the 2002 Skin show at the Cooper-Hewitt—with the understanding of both those scales at once. Last year, they worked with their father (also an architect) on a project in North Dakota, where they grew up, that is part public art installation, part architecture. A local artist commissioned six designers to make small spaces for reflection and art that would be mobile so that many more people could use them. Their solution was to use thermal plastic rods much like the struts of a tent set into a rigid bench that is both seating and structure. The result (above) suggests something between an open-air chapel and the frame of a covered wagon, and is a compelling synthesis of the two brothers’ respective disciplines.





LECTURE SERIES:
Wednesday, 
March 5

Jamie Darnell, David Dowell, Dan Maginn, Josh Shelton, and Douglas Stockman,
el dorado

Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, 
WORK Architecture Company

 

Wednesday, 
March 26
 
Hagy Belzberg, Belzberg Architects

Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample, 
MOS


Wednesday, 
March 12
 
Johnny McDonald, 
Pat McDonald, 
Tim McDonald, 
and Howard Steinberg, 
Onion Flats

Chris Reed, 
Stoss Landscape Urbanism

 


All lectures begin at 
7:00 p.m., with the exception of the March 5 lecture, which will begin at 6:45 p.m. Lectures will be held at the New Museum, 235 Bowery.



Wednesday, 
March 19
 
Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling, 
Johnsen Schmaling Architects

Granger Moorhead 
and Robert Moorhead,
Moorhead & Moorhead
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That Other LACMA
SPF:A

Although it hasn’t gotten much attention, another firm besides Renzo Piano Building Workshop is working on a major commission at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Culver City-based SPF:A in November finished first schematic designs for the renovation and transformation of LACMA’s May Company Building, just west of Piano’s almost-completed (and just snubbed by its namesake) Broad Contemporary Art Museum. The May building, known as LACMA West, now contains small exhibition spaces, offices, and warehouse-like storage. Many of its windows are boarded up. It will be transformed into a major exhibition space containing much of LACMA’s contemporary art collection, as well as a restaurant, book shop, and special event spaces. The firm was commissioned for the project in August.

The five-story streamline moderne building at 6067 Wilshire was designed as a May Company department store by AC Martin and Samuel Marx in 1939. The structure’s most recognizable element is the cylindrical, gold-colored tower and deco signage on its northwest side. LACMA purchased the property in 1991, opening it for exhibitions in 1999. SPF:A will keep the facade intact, repairing and replacing worn-out elements and bringing the building to code. The northeast corner will be changed to accommodate a “signature” display, although that element has not been worked out, explained SPF:A partner Zoltan Pali.

Inside, the firm will open up once chopped-up spaces, creating open-plan gallery and work spaces, and using a minimal palette meant to defer to the artwork. The mezzanine, now boarded up, will be opened and connected to the entry to create a dramatic, double-height public space. The third and fourth floors will be used for offices, and the top floor will include a boardroom and outdoor gathering and exhibition spaces. 

The project will be completed in 2010, and fundraising is in full swing. 

Eavesdrop: Editors

THIS ONE GOES OUT TO THE LADIES…
We are recovered, at last, from the haze of the holidays, though still haunted by the memory of Steven Holl’s office party: Did the slideshow projected on the wall really show the man in question shirtless? At the time, we asked him, and he mentioned something about being a young architect, just getting started, etc. Footloose and garment-free, eh? But we digress… In the spirit of self-sacrifice for which we are widely unknown, we dispatched ourselves over to Madison Square Park the other day to test out the Nicholas Grimshaw–designed pissoirthat has caused so much twittering since it was installed in mid-January. (Admittedly, there was some self-interest involved, as we are cursed with what could be described as the bladder of a third-grader, and—happier thought!—the Shake Shack, to whose burgers we are very partial, is right nearby.) So, Gentle Reader, off we went! As we waited for the man in front of us to, ahem, take care of business, we spotted a CEMUSA truck parked on the curb, and a young man in a CEMUSA jumpsuit leaning up against it, undoubtedly to watch his employer’s snazzy new toilet. (For those oddities among you who are not fascinated by the sanitary habits of New Yorkers, CEMUSA is the Spanish company producing these miraculous cabins of comfort.) Channeling our inner Brenda Starr, we smiled broadly and asked how it was being received. Our charming young informant told us all about it and said it’s a hit: “The men, the ladies, they all love it. But especially the ladies, who like how clean it is.” We agreed that clean is good and continued to chat away when, suddenly, the young man blurted out, “FINALLY! You can pee in style!” Were the cabin door not opening, and our turn arriving at last, we would have cheered because we couldn’t agree more: We pride ourselves on doing everything in style.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
Robert A. M. Stern may have already gotten the commission to design theGeorge W. Bush Presidential Library, but some folks apparently think he could use some help: The Chronicle of Higher Education is holding a competition to deliver Stern a wealth of ideas. Standard architecture contest rules apply, with one catch: Your entire concept must fit on the back of an envelope. (Insert your own joke here; we made ourselves delete it.) Readers will vote on the best design, the winning designer will get an iPod Touch, and the architecture world will earn the undying admiration of the Republican Party. Deadline is February 1, for details and to vote, visit chronicle.com/indepth/architecture/architecture-contest.htm.

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Blooms Amid the Concrete
Courtesy LIU

Looking at the corner of Flatbush and Dekalb avenues in Brooklyn, it would be hard to tell that the area was once an agricultural center, but a new garden at Long Island University’s (LIU) downtown campus is serving as a reminder that many things can grow in Brooklyn.

The New York–based firm Alec Klee Galli Architects was commissioned last year to transform part of LIU’s urban campus into something more pastoral. “The space was so grim before, all concrete,” said Joanna Marx, an archivist at LIU. “Now, it has a fanciful quality, like Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole and re-emerging into a new world.” This foray into landscape architecture was a first for principal Alex Galli, who came on board after his friend Stuart Fishelson, a professor of photography at the school, recommended him to provost Gale Steven Haynes.

“Everyone was longing for lawns,” remarked Galli, “so I wanted to get in as much green space as possible while emphasizing principles of geometry.” Straight and rounded paths are metaphoric representations of the disciplines taught at the school, and create beds of dogwoods and purple lilacs around three fountains. Galli worked closely with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in locating over 1,000 native plants to create a space that acts as homage to old New York’s landscape.

Another area full of berry bushes, azaleas, and plum trees is known as the Garden of Eden and was inspired by early accounts Galli read about Brooklyn in the 1600s. “I thought it would be neat to have actual fruit-bearing plants on a campus in downtown Brooklyn,” says Galli. Along the streets, there are beds of wildflowers, dandelions, clovers, and mosses designed to resemble country meadows.

The garden is attracting more applicants to the university, according to public relations director Peg Byron, and has fostered a communal sentiment among LIU students, many of whom have not experienced the “traditional campus feel” enjoyed by students attending college in non-urban areas.

The project is still only half done. Another section between the Health Sciences Center and the Pharmacy School, on hold until spring, will feature medicinal plants. When complete, the Brooklyn campus will have 30,750 square feet of green space. “Gale’s dream is to make this a downtown oasis,” said Galli.

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Eye of the Tiger
PennPraxis/WRT

When Philadelphia’s manufacturing base abandoned the city shortly after World War II, it left behind a 7-mile stretch of prime waterfront real estate along the bank of the Delaware River. For the next 50 years that land lay fallow, cut off from the rest of the city by I-95, home to crumbling industrial structures, an underused pedestrian area, and two big-box retailers that showed up in the 1990s: Wal Mart and Ikea.

But in recent years the waterfront has been the focus of a flurry of speculative development from which two visions of the area’s future have arisen: In one—the collective scheme of a handful of private developers—the waterfront becomes home to more than 20 highrise condominiums situated on megablocks. In the other—a proposal soon to be finalized by PennPraxis, the non-profit consulting arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of William Penn’s Design—famed street grid extends to the river’s edge, creating the template for a pedestrian-scaled, mixed-use urban environment.

Though inherently at odds, the two visions haven’t squared off for a proper battle for supremacy until now. On November 14, Praxis’s proposal will be displayed to the public at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. If all goes well, its recommendations could be voted into law within the next year. The imminence of this plan has drawn the ire of heavyweight zoning lawyer Michael Sklaroff and former city planning commissioner Craig Schelter, who now represents the waterfront developers.

Both Sklaroff and Schelter have blasted Praxis for not taking the developers’ input into consideration. But this complaint is an empty one, said Praxis director Harris Steinberg, who added that the entire process has been open to the public. “The development community could have put in their two cents at any time,” he explained.

Initiated on October 12, 2006, in an executive order by Mayor John F. Street, the Central Delaware Riverfront Planning Process materialized from a measure put forth by city councilman Frank DiCicco. The move was a response to public outcry over two casinos that the state legislature had allowed on the riverfront in a piece of midnight rulemaking.

Steinberg and Praxis agreed to take on the project under one condition: that the process be completely transparent and open to community involvement. Working with design firm Wallace, Roberts, and Todd and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, as well as a handful of other consultants, Praxis attracted more than 4,000 Philadelphia residents to 13 public events. The plan that has emerged from that yearlong process reportedly draws on the city’s powers to impose civic guidelines on developers. For example, the city has the power to plat streets, or force developers to adhere to the master plan’s grid when developing their properties.

The biggest impediment to the Praxis plan at this point is Sklaroff, who, according to Steinberg, has the ear of the governor, operates via backroom deals, and could influence the new mayor (the office is up for reelection). On the other hand, considering the nation’s softening real estate market, the riverfront could lay fallow for another 50 years.


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Herbert Muschamp, 1947-2007
Courtesy The New York Times

Everyone has a notorious Herbert story, but certainly the very last one I would want to have to circulate is his obituary. A longtime heavy smoker, Herbert died of a lung cancer on Tuesday, October 2, that was diagnosed earlier this year. He had stepped down from his position as the architecture critic for The New York Times two years before.

Herbert’s contribution to architectural criticism has not been fully measured. His opinions were often hyperbolic; his prose outrageous; the path of his thinking inimitably complex. Unforgettable samplers would have to include his comparing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the “reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe,” and calling Zaha Hadid’s Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the cold war.”

Famously, he wrote positively in September 2002 that Daniel Libeskind’s tower proposal for Ground Zero “attains a perfect balance between aggression and desire,” only to switch allegiances five months later. As a newly converted partisan of the proposal by the team THINK, he wrote, “Daniel Libeskind's project for the World Trade Center site is a startlingly aggressive tour de force, a war memorial to a looming conflict that has scarcely begun.” A close reading—and no one more deserves a closer re-reading than Herbert—reveals that he has not really contradicted himself here but refined his opinion. To many, his views were inflammatory, even dangerous to architecture. “Whoopee,” he might have said. Has anyone else stirred up so much heated passion about cold bricks?

Before becoming the third architecture critic for the Times in 1992 following Ada Louise Huxtable and Paul Goldberger, Herbert Muschamp held the same position at The New Republic and Artforum. He also served as director of the graduate program in architecture and design criticism at the Parsons School of Design from 1983 to1992, a role that must have satisfied his desire to impress moldable intellects but hardly indulged his talent for the kind of performance writing that became his hallmark. At the time of his death he reportedly had just finished his memoirs.

I came to know Herbert at The New York Times, when I was an editor inviting him to write for the Sunday magazine’s design pages. Whether it was the glamour days of airline fashion and the Cold War or Donald Trump’s strange allure, he always had something he wanted to push through the clarifying wringer of design and architecture as organizing principles. As a self-defined outsider, a gay man, and as someone far more articulate and widely-read than most anyone he encountered, he believed deeply in the saving power of architectural space. For him, heaven might well be a dim, luxuriantly appointed lobby with library shelves.

Herbert was also maddening; he drove his editors and his friends up the wall only to charm them back down again with twinkling wit and an open generosity that could almost prepare one for the next onslaught. He liked the power that came with being the Times architecture critic, commissioning a then unknown (in the United States) Santiago Calatrava to design a time capsule for the newspaper in 1999, and making sure that, if not Gehry, then Renzo Piano would design the paper’s new headquarters. But he had no favorites; he only championed what was interesting. And what was interesting to him was anything that was compelling and vital and personal. Freud was often lurking in the background of his prose. Herbert once wrote, “the Freudian history is personal, the Marxian history is social, but in both instances a diagnosis is called for. It often seems to me that the architect's task today is to shape spaces that don't make the world more diseased than it is.” But it was Herbert himself who wanted to cure the world of unthinking, unengaging architecture and fill it instead with places that would welcome even someone as critical but hopeful as himself.

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Commodity and Delight
Tom Dixon's Glowb installation in Trafalgar Square.
Courtesy London Design Festival

People were clamoring to honor Zaha Hadid during this year’s London Design Festival. Her Urban Nebula installation of jagged concrete modules sat in front of the South Bank Centre beside the Thames, her Aqua table was rendered in marble for furniture company Established and Sons, and London’s mayor Ken Livingstone awarded her the inaugural London Design Medal at the event’s opening.

The fifth annual London Design Festival, which also incorporates the longstanding tradeshow 100% Design, was—like Hadid herself—an intriguing mix of hard commerce and entertaining experimentation. The polished concrete wall commissioned by the festival organizers as part of the project Size + Matter aimed to blur the boundaries between architecture, design, engineering, and sculpture by partnering Hadid and Future Systems’ Amanda Levete with manufacturers of precast concrete and Corian, respectively, to create installations to be auctioned off by Phillips de Pury & Co. When asked to make a sales pitch for the installation during a series of talks hosted by Blueprint, Hadid expressed a desire to make her work accessible.

You might be forgiven for thinking there weren’t any other designers in the city, but not everything was Zaha-related. Tom Dixon demonstrated deft skills in public relations and reaching the public with his Glowb giveaway, in which 1,000 Dixon-designed energy efficient lightbulbs were given away on a first come, first served basis. His site-specific chandelier, a suspended carpet of his “Blow” bulbs, was the flame to crowds of mothlike customers swarming Trafalgar Square during the festival’s opening days.

The first Tent London product design show, set up by 100% Design founders Ian Rudge and Jimmy MacDonald, was staged in the former Truman Brewery building in East London. Rather than products, the highlight here was the Urbantine Project, an open competition aimed at budding architecture and design practices to design and construct a temporary pavilion that responds to the need for flexible workspaces. The winner, architect Alex Haw, built an concertina-like system of interlocking plywood panels to form a sequence of work/leisure spaces.

It was clear that the thriving and affluent commercial design scene and the designers/ makers still emerging remain disparate entities. Unlike in Milan, where the furniture show has roots in the city’s manufacturing industry and retains an affinity with the production process, it was evident this year that the lack of a coherent focus in London is what gives the festival its character. The charm lies in finding the oddities and individual highlights.

Sunnyside Shines at LPC

After five years of intensive work by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), during which neighbors battled over issues ranging from owner’s rights and affordable housing to architectural details and historical precedent, the LPC voted 10-0 this morning to designate Sunnyside Gardens as a historic district. This makes Sunnyside Gardens the seventh and largest historic district in Queens.

“I feel particularly privileged to present Sunnyside Gardens for landmarks designation,” LPC chairperson Robert Tierney said while introducing the vote at a public meeting. “As we’ve seen, Sunnyside Gardens is one of the most significant planned communities in the city.” He added, “I believe Sunnyside Gardens expresses a special sense of place. When you walk around its streets and gardens, you experience a distinct part of the city.”

Conceptualized as a model of quality affordable housing for working-class families, Sunnyside Gardens was built from 1924 to 1928. Designed by Clarence Stein and Frederick Ackerman with the support of Alexander Bing, a real estate executive in charge of the City Housing Corporation, Sunnyside Gardens was intended as an experiment in architectural, urban, and community planning, one that has been copied nation- and worldwide. Urban critic Lewis Mumford lived there from 1925 to 1936 and often wrote fondly about the neighborhood.

Stein and Ackerman were forced to work within the existing street grid, comprised of long, narrow plots on the south side of the Sunnyside rail yards, but the architects used this to their advantage, pushing their one-, two-, and three-family townhouses to the lot line and sewing the resulting backyards together into community gardens. “The system of shared backyards was a breakthrough, proof that the public and private could coexist to the betterment of both,” LPC commissioner Diana Jackier noted. Two of the nine commissioners at the meeting admitted to having studied Sunnyside Gardens in architecture school, an education that helped strengthen their decisions.

In recent years, fences and additions have sprouted in these backyards next to herb gardens and towering trees that have flourished over the neighborhood’s 80-plus years. Though extant features will be grandfathered, landmarks designation seeks to preserve these gardens as close to their original designs as possible, as well as the Art Deco and colonial revival buildings themselves, which are not protected under the current Special Planned Community Preservation District. This distinction is where the acrimony begins.

“They’re going to tell me what color to paint my door?” Sunnyside Gardens resident Joseph Licalsi asked a reporter after the vote. “They’re going to tell me what windows to install? I bought this house to be a homeowner, not a custodian.” Licalsi said he has owned his house for 20 years but would never have bought it were he faced with the current constraints.

Ira Greenberg, a local attorney working for the Preserve Sunnyside Gardens Coalition, said the LPC is “missing the boat.” “They’re talking about sense of place. There’s no place for that in the law. The yards are protected in the zoning. They’ve been protected since 1974. What they’re doing is trying to protect the details of our houses. The American Institute of Architects guide to New York said the design is unimportant.” The actual passage states, “The architecture is unimportant, but the urban arrangement a source of urbane delight.”

Though the LPC’s 50-seat meeting room in the Municipal Building was filled with angry neighbors waving signs that read, “Don’t Landmark Sunnyside Gardens,” the commission said a majority of the community supported the initiative because it would protect a neighborhood being eroded by curb cuts and fences. “I’m very much in favor,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which helped spearhead landmarks designation.

For many, the change was necessary. “Right now it’s been very complicated,” Laura Heim, a resident and local architect said of the houses she has worked on in Sunnyside Gardens under the community preservation guidelines. “The new plans will be clearer. It should be easier to work on.” But opponents insist what was once an affordable neighborhood will continue to become inaccessible. “Slate roofs and Hudson brick? Those were used in the past because they were cheap,” Greenburg said. “But it’s certainly not cheap now.” LPC spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon responded, “It’s not a foregone conclusion that anything will be more expensive.”

Future Perfect?

On May 31, the state agency charged with reimagining Governors Island revealed five all-star teams’ design schemes for the 176-acre island’s public spaces, beginning a juried review process that will stress usable ideas. The jury will prioritize proposals that seem most likely to create a park constituency that will prompt office, institutional, and commercial users to build out the island’s southern half. “The park is a first phase to promote future development,” the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) president Leslie Koch told AN. “We need a public space people will visit and visit again,” she said. “The word we use is ‘compelling’.”

 

The five finalists are Field Operations/ Wilkinson Eyre; Hargreaves Associates/ Michael Maltzan Architecture; REX/MDP; West 8/Rogers Marvel Architects/Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Quennell Rothschild & Partners/SMWM; and WRT/Urban Strategies. The brief requires a promenade circling the island and a park big enough for festivals. GIPEC seeks uses that wouldn’t necessarily work in nearby Brooklyn Bridge Park or Battery Park, and that will lure bikers and picnickers to ride a ferry or come across in a gondola from those areas, which are undergoing their own renovation. “It must offer completely unique, compelling experiences…as well as provide for common activities in an uncommonly wonderful setting.”

 

In that context, even virtuosos like Field Operations chief James Corner have submitted restrained or low-key playful approaches. “Do too much and you get the world’s biggest theme park,” he told AN, “so we really minimize the architecture.” The most fanciful proposal, from the team including Diller Scofidio + Renfro, works around the concept of “urban illusions,” including loaner bikes. Such fancy has prompted some observers to question whether the architectheavy roster is equipped to handle the site’s manychallenges.

 

REX-NY principal Joshua Prince-Ramus, whose describes his firm’s proposal as a development scheme, endorses GIPEC’s logic of using public space to prompt private investment. “What they’re doing is really smart,” he told AN. “Private development won’t come without the grounds cleaned up in such a beautiful way that a university or institute would want to be there.” Indeed, GIPEC had tried earlier to start the revitalization process by asking developers’ teams to submit ideas for building out the island, then dismissed all those proposals, except for a small charter school, as insufficiently imaginative or financially feasible. The future, then, begins with open space that the public will use and love. A panel discussion on June 11 and public hearing on June 20, Koch promises, will clarify the public’s priorities for uses of the new park. The jury, which includes SHoP’s Gregg Pasquarelli and former Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose, will evaluate schemes over the summer. 

A Second Act for the Bam Cultural District

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music decided to throw its cultural heft into remaking its then-dingy neighborhood, it did so the BAM way, i.e., con brio. With a master plan from Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and Diller + Scofidio, and renderings of a state-of-the-art new public library by TEN Arquitectos, the future looked glamorous. And while it took almost nine years, new architects, scaled-back projects, and some political shifts, several significant pieces of the plan are about to go forward. By Alan G. Brake. 

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music burned to the ground in 1903, the New York Times opined, “In short, there has hardly been a great public movement of national import but the old Academy has been at one time or another its principal focus.” BAM quickly relocated from Brooklyn Heights to its present location on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene where it has enriched the city’s cultural life for more than a century. Over the last ten years, however, BAM has added an unusual element to its portfolio of offerings, and that is neighborhood redevelopment.

In 1998, Harvey Lichtenstein began to move out of his position as the institution’s director, and looked outward at the neighborhood. It wasn’t pretty: The 1970s and 1980s had not been kind to Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn, and one of the most respected performing arts organizations in the country found itself surrounded by a nondescript mix of parking lots, liquor stores, and not much else. But with a location near commercial hubs and lots of subways, there seemed to be no reason why the area couldn’t come back. Lichtenstein formed the BAM Limited Development Corporation (LDC) as a catalyst for the transformation of the ten or so blocks immediately around the theater into an arts district. The organization hired New York’s Diller+Scofidio and the Rotterdam-based OMA to develop a conceptual masterplan in 2000. Two years later, it held a competition for a Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) branch for the Brooklyn Public Library; the jury chose TEN Arquitectos, and images of an ship-like building were published everywhere.

But things seemed to slow down soon after, and there wasn’t much news from the intersection of Flatbush and Lafayette Avenues. In 2004, WORK AC quietly took over the planning job. “The Diller +Scofidio/OMA masterplan still provides the basis for what will be built,” says principal Dan Wood. Wood founded WORK AC after leaving OMA and continued to be involved in the project. The main innovation of the latest version is shifting the site of the Theatre for a New Audience, a respected Shakespearian company, to Layfayette Avenue, next to the Mark Morris Dance Center and catercorner from BAM, opening up space on Lafayette for a substantial new park with the working name Grand Plaza. Toward the end of the process, WORK AC brought in Ken Smith’s firm to consult on open space and streetscape plans. The Grand Plaza will act as a front door for three of the major cultural institutions, making it a sort of Lincoln Center stitched into the fabric of brownstone Brooklyn. Parking will be built under the plaza and will match the existing number of spaces. “The modified plans allows us to create a park where you want to be, not just a remnant patch,” says Christian Gabrial, a designer at Ken Smith Landscape Architecture.

After the masterplan was complete, the teams switched roles to further develop the open space and streetscapes, with Ken Smith’s team as the prime consultant and WORK as the subsidiary. “A lot of time and energy are going into the streetscape, which will have a key role in pulling the district together,” says Louise Eddleston, a designer at Ken Smith. “The district is primarily residential and with more units of housing going in it will remain that way.” She says the short blocks and intimate scale of the neighborhood have to be understood and used to their best advantage. The firm will present schematic designs to the Economic Development Corporation in the Fall, and hopes to get the contract to build the project.

This is more likely to happen than it would have been even a year ago: Last year, the city, frustrated by the lack of action on the VPA and other projects, stepped in and moved the BAMLDC under the umbrella of the larger and more powerful Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), which includes business improvement districts for Metrotech and the Fulton Street Mall. DPB has close ties to deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and this has clearly contributed to the recent up-tick in development activity in the district. “There was a sense in early 2006 that the city needed to step up, not just in terms or time, but also in terms of high-level attention,” says Joe Chan, the DBP president. “Coordinating development with cultural groups is a lot more complicated than private developers.”

The move is yielding results. Though the VPA library was recently declared all but dead by the Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin due to lack of fundraising on the part of the Brooklyn Public Library, several other significant projects are moving forward in the district. Along with the streetscape design, a revised design for the Theatre for a New Audience is in the works by Frank Gehry and the H3 Partnership, and the department of Housing Preservation and Development just concluded an Request for Proposals for a new mixed use building that will house Danspace, the contemporary dance incubator. All of this is happening in the shadow, metaphorically speaking, of Forest City Ratner’s controversial and gargantuan Atlantic Yards development.

But curiously, the fighting around Atlantic Yards seems not to have affected plans for the BAM cultural district, at least thus far. “It’s sort of an elephant compared to an ant,” says Wood. “The BAM cultural district can fold into an existing neighborhood, whereas Atlantic Yards will generate its own.” From the beginning, too, BAM LDC also worked with community groups, local churches, and elected officials to address concerns about rising rents and over development. “There was a call for many opportunities for input,” said Chan. “Gentrification and displacement is the greatest fear.”

Chan, however, sees Atlantic Yards and the cultural district as complementary projects. “Both projects emphasize the development of mixed-income communities,” he says. “They are a part of changing perceptions about Downtown Brooklyn and about catering to diverse and inclusive tastes for art, culture, entertainment, and sports.” Gabrial adds, “The cultural district operates within a web of existing neighborhoods, including Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn. It’s really a linchpin project.”

While coordinating multiple city agencies and cultural groups and meeting fundraising goals has somewhat slowed and altered development, the district’s largely positive reception in the community speaks to the thoughtful and neighborly scale of the project, as well as a flexible, piecemeal approach. The subtle way in which increased cultural programming,open space,and higher density are being woven into the neighborhood could prove to be a model for the borough and beyond. It also shows that Brooklynites aren’t averse to change, they just don’t like to get steamrolled.

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Dialogue: Shaun Donovan & Gwendolyn Wright

In March, the Department of Housing Development and Preservation announced that it had reached the one-third mark in its initiative to develop and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing. To mark the occasion, AN asked housing historian and Columbia professor Gwendolyn Wright to sit down with HPD commissioner Shaun Donovan.

Gwendolyn Wright: What surprises you about working in city government?
Shaun Donovan: One of the most pleasant surprises has been that in a city so famous for politics, how un-political this administration has been. I think Rolling Stone did a profile of the mayor that said New Yorkers have an opportunity to see what government can be without politics, and it actually feels that way inside. It’s amazing how much support we have from the mayor and City Hall to stand up and say this is why we do what we’re doing. 

GW: Having lived in New York for the last 25 years, I can tell you it wasn’t always that way. What does that actually mean in terms of the way things work downtown?
SD: It has a broad set of implications, but there’s a piece of it that’s all about leadership. For example, Iris Weinshall [the recently-departed transportation commissioner] called me the other day and said, “You know what, we’re going to give you these seven parking lots.” For her to make that decision is actually a remarkable thing inside government, because what’s the upside for the transportation commissioner? Not a lot. Even though a given lot is only 25 percent full most of the time, she’s going to get yelled at by the local merchants because the people who use it can’t get to their shops as easily. To me, that says there’s a clear message from City Hall that affordable housing is a priority for the mayor.

GW: What is the role of the private market in the New Housing Marketplace initiative?
SD: That has been the single biggest challenge and opportunity here. When I arrived, the mayor had already started to shift the strategies towards recreating a market in places where there wasn’t one, such as the South Bronx and lots of Harlem. He did this through the New Housing Marketplace plan. I think the real shift that I’ve tried to make is to figure out how to harness the market, rather than recreate it. In affordable housing, a $5 million condo can actually be your friend: It can be as simple as building a few market rate units for the cross-subsidy they create for affordable ones. I think it has also meant that we have a broader opportunity to create mixed-income communities across the city than we did before. One of the great failures of housing policy has been to think about low-income housing as something dangerous that has to be separated out. We try to blur the lines as much as possible, and leveraging the market is really important in doing that. 




Donovan (top) and Wright.  
Aaron Seward
 
 

GW: It is interesting that the mayor and your agency speak about a marketplace, which is different from the market. When people invoke the market they tend to mean the upper tier of it, and how to keep those guys happy—and they’re pretty happy right now! But the marketplace is a circumstance where you have the realities of economics: many different prices, many different groups, and many different kinds of markets. You’re allowing New York to function like a city as opposed to a place defined by the market aspirations of a few major developers.

SD: Housing advocates often focus on how much money government is putting into something, but the levers that we hold in government are often much more powerful than the money. Inclusionary zoning is a perfect example of that. We’ve got million-dollar condos going up on the waterfront in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but we could never have thrown enough money at those projects to end up with what we’re getting, which is that 20 to 30 percent of these buildings are affordable. This is some of the most prime real estate available. The only reason it will be a truly integrated community is because we used the powers of zoning to say that there is a benefit to the marketplace, and we want the marketplace to flourish there. We’ll allow you to build taller, but if you do, you’ve got to give something back for that density.

GW: You seem quite interested in design innovations of various sorts. What are the possibilities for architects?
SD: At the simplest level, it’s about increasing our engagement in design and opening up the process to architects. I think [commissioner] David Burney has really done that for public work through the Department of Design and Construction, and I hope that we’re following that example. Look at all the entries for the New Housing New York competition we just held. I think it is the best example to date of a process that integrates architecture in a way that was not just about design, but about creating a sustainable community. We’re going to do more design competitions like that, but we can’t do it on every single project. It was an enormous effort and expense, but there are a lot of principles that we can integrate into our smaller projects. 

GW: One of the things that you’re doing, which is unusual and wonderful, is challenging architects to imagine and innovate in new ways.
SD: I think there has been a mutual fear within affordable housing and the architecture community about the failure of design in public housing. I strongly believe that design gets a bad rap for lots of other failures, most of them around the social makeup of a project or its financing, all of which have fed into the disintegration of many public housing communities. There’s disillusionment about the possibilities of architecture. I worry about the retreat into traditionalism and contextualism as a way of repairing that. In this competition, we had a long discussion about whether the city was ready for a tower in the park that wasn’t the traditional model. 

GW: I think you’re absolutely right. A lot of architects have felt that housing in general, beyond very expensive luxury housing, tied their hands; there was a demand that it be traditional because then it would seem familiar and somehow ease over all the social problems. It’s almost modernism in reverse. How do you think we can open up a definition of housing beyond the accretion of units in some kind of block or bar?
SD: I think a lot of that is thinking about urban design as part of the work that we do. If you look at Arverne [Arverne Urban Renewal Area, Far Rockaway, Queens] we’re essentially creating new towns there. Our relationship with City Planning is so much stronger than it once was.  

GW: Let me shift a little and ask you about homeownership. It’s emphasized in a lot of the literature put out by the Bloomberg administration. It’s also becoming more controversial due to the problem of subprime mortgages. Homeownership is not the right thing for everyone. What do you see as the advantage of homeownership?
SD: We just reached a record high of homeownership in New York City: 33.3 percent, though it’s the lowest rate of any metropolitan area in the country. We’ve created close to 20,000 low-income homeowners through the limited-equity properties we created through cooperative programs. These were city-owned buildings that we took in foreclosure, renovated, and sold for $250 a unit to the residents. That’s an incredible amount of equity that’s been created for low-income people, and has built a stable financial existence for them. In that sense, I think it’s an increasingly important tool that works within the marketplace. It will never be our primary strategy, but is an important piece of the overall strategy. 

GW: There are several exhibitions on Robert Moses in the city right now. He’s a controversial example of someone not elected to office who exercised enormous political power over the environment, social services, transportation, and housing. What does he teach political figures today?
SD: This goes back to my earliest experiences in government, when I realized the importance of balancing public consensus with moving ahead consistently. That balance is probably the single most important thing that a public servant can achieve, but it is extremely difficult to do. I think it’s very clear that Moses was too far on one side of the spectrum. There was no respect for the importance of building consensus. On the other hand, I think this administration has tried to move toward big things again. Look at Williamsburg: It’s two miles of waterfront. It’s not about small plans. A lot of it is about setting a framework for growth that has an organic quality. The city is a living organism and we have to think of it in that dynamic way. We can’t freeze New York at any time. We have to be ready for change.

Hailing the Future

For tired, cold New Yorkers stranded far from home, there’s no better sight than a yellow cab. But sometimes the sight can be less welcome. 

When a taxi passenger door swings out unexpectedly into the path of a cyclist, it can be a mortal threat. According to a Department of City Planning survey, being “doored” by cars is the number-one cause of crashes for cyclists in New York City. Taxis are a frequent culprit, due to their chaotic passenger pickups and drop-offs. 

But if taxis were better designed, cyclists would have less to fear. 

To that end, Antenna Design has come up with a highly visible roof light that declares when passengers are entering or exiting. The light is just one of many prototypes on display through April 15 at Taxi 07, a free exhibit created to spur discussion and development of the ideal taxis for the future. 

The exhibit is staged outside the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, on the convention center's inner roadway near the corner of 35th Street and 11th Avenue. Visitors can check out several full-scale, functional taxi prototypes. One model can zoom along at 200 miles per hour; dubbed the World’s Fastest Taxi, it's driven by a 1,000-horsepower hydrogen-fueled engine. 

Less sexy but more spacious internally, the Standard Taxi is wheelchair accessible. The Kia Rondo offers a smorgasbord of good design, including a Birsel + Seck child-safety seat that folds up when not in use, a light from Smart Design that illuminates the ground when passengers exit at night, and Antenna Design’s LED roof light. On the nearby sidewalk, visitors can view small-scale models, a film about taxi drivers, and a rendering of Weisz + Yoes’ concept for a GPS-enabled taxi stand that would let riders hail taxis digitally. 

The exhibit coincides with the centennial of New York’s gas-powered taxi, an appropriate moment to reflect on the less-than-progressive current state of our taxi system. Grimy, uncomfortable, toxin-spewing cabs constitute as much as half of all traffic at some times of day, according to Deborah Marton, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, the organization behind Taxi 07

The exhibit is just one part of a multifaceted program. The Design Trust will soon release a report with the working title “Taxi 07: Roads Forward.” Examining the current state of affairs and offering strategies for improvement, the report will be available online at www.designtrust.org. The group is also planning to launch an advocacy group to fight for reform. 

While there is growing momentum to explore green alternatives, of the 13,037 taxis currently operating in New York City, just 327 are electric hybrids and one is fully electric-powered, according to Allan Fromberg, a spokesperson for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. Only 47 are wheelchair accessible, though more are on the way. And many cabs remain startlingly low-tech, though by the end of 2007 all cabs will offer at least a credit-card payment system and personal information monitors that provide maps, news, and entertainment. 

“The goals of Taxi 07 are to recognize that the New York City taxi is already an icon,” Marton said. “We think that the taxi should also be a symbol of our commitment to sustainable mobility, access for all, and good design. There’s no reason the taxi shouldn’t have the highest level of design for its usability, its access, its fueling systems, and its looks.” 

These issues don't only concern design geeks, political activists, urban planners, and nonsuicidal cyclists. Since most New Yorkers don’t have automobiles of their own, Marton observed, “the taxi is basically our shared family car.” Maybe it’s time to consider a serious upgrade.