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The Gatekeepers
The Public Design Commission controls most every detail of most every public art and design project in the city, including the new Grimshaw-designed bus stops.
Courtesy Cemusa

For nearly 35 years, Paul Broches of Mitchell/Giurgola Architects has been working to make Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island a reality. On a recent Monday, he unrolled his drawings in a low-ceilinged City Hall annex before one of the least known but most influential deliberative bodies in New York: the Public Design Commission (PDC). On this afternoon, the engineer Guy Nordenson, one of 11 commissioners, took a typically conscientious line of questioning: “Will the park be high enough above the East River waterline,” he asked, “to endure rising sea levels due to global warming?” You bet it will, said Broches, who counted the meeting as one more modest victory for the quixotic Kahn project.

For Broches and other architects, the Public Design Commission is a customary stop on the road to public-works approvals. But ask many in the design community about the PDC, and you’re likely to draw a blank. Known until last August as the Art Commission, the PDC has maintained an air of mystery even as it exerts a strong influence over the city’s built environment. According to its mission statement, the commission is charged with approving all “permanent works of art, architecture, and landscape architecture proposed on or over city-owned property.” Yet many architects who have presented municipal projects for review are unclear how the commission works, where its jurisdiction begins and ends, and what guiding principles the commissioners hold in shaping the city’s future.


The commission oversaw the expansion of Staten Island's St. George Ferry Terminal, designed by FTL Design Engineering Studio, which includes these pavilions.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

The Design Commission’s low profile is all the more surprising, since its operations are effectively hidden in plain sight. “All our hearings and meetings are open to the public,” said PDC Executive Director Jackie Snyder. The commission’s online calendar includes a docket of every project currently under consideration, and recent committee meetings—informal rehearsals for city agencies in the early stages of a new project—have featured everything from the installation of signage for a library book drop in Queens to a comfort station in the Bronx. Public hearings, where official submissions are made and approval granted or withheld, have recently ranged from newsstands on Madison Avenue to the reconstruction of East Fordham Road in the Bronx.

The PDC’s bailiwick has remained largely unchanged since the Art Commission’s creation in 1898. As called for in the charter of the then newly consolidated City of New York, the commission’s first members were appointed for three-year, unpaid terms at the recommendation of the Fine Arts Federation, an independent cultural consortium. The federation nominated one architect, one painter, a sculptor, and three “lay members.” Three additional commissioners were selected by the most prominent cultural institutions of the day: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Public Library. Today, the PDC’s membership breaks down in precisely the same way, chosen by the same process, with one more lay member appointed at the mayor’s discretion and a landscape architect rounding out the group.


James Carpenter designed The Inclined Light Wall for a Polshek addition to the hall of Science in 2004.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO
 
The Commission Also oversees public institutions, such as the Hospital for Special Surgery, which expanded in 2006
Courtesy HSS
 
One Stone (2007) by cai guo-qiang was conceived in concert with the Bronx County Hall of Justice, by Rafael Viñoly Architects.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

 

 

 

The commission’s review powers are much as they were over a hundred years ago. In developing any public works project, every branch of the city’s vast bureaucracy must prepare a series of presentations for the commission. Usually the work of the consulting architect, these presentations follow a three-step process: conceptual, preliminary, and final.

The first two take place during public hearings in the commission’s offices, attended by members of the agencies involved (invariably) and by concerned members of the public (infrequently). The presenter outlines the project’s objectives and design strategies, while the commissioners make suggestions and take a casual thumbs-up, thumbs-down vote. The final stage entails only a submission of project documents. The result is fair and reasonable, according to veterans of the process. “I’ve presented to the PDC many, many times,” Broches said. “Even though the character of the commission changes as the commissioners change, I’ve always found them to be smart, serious-minded, and amicable.”

Some civic construction escapes the commission’s purview: Federal and state buildings fall outside their mandate, and some city buildings are the province of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The PDC also passes judgment on a surprising volume of construction beyond the city limits, like the entire Croton Aqueduct system, with its headhouses, gatehouses, and signposts scattered throughout Westchester County.

Other projects submitted for review aren’t actually being reviewed at all. “Courtesy” reviews are commonplace, delivered by non-city agencies in an effort to garner broad political support. As it turned out, the presenters of Four Freedoms Park, which is to be built on state-owned land, were performing one such courtesy call. “The Design Commission is involved with so many projects on public land in New York, it just seemed eminently reasonable to get their opinion,” said Sally Minard, who has helped spearhead the project.

The commission strives to avoid unexpected—and expensive—design revamps as much as is practical. As Snyder explained, “We usually try to have people come in earlier, so that it’s easier and less expensive for agencies to change designs.” But clearly, the committee isn’t just applying a rubber stamp. At a recent hearing, Department of Transportation (DOT) personnel milled around the PDC’s waiting room, having just finished their “second or third preliminary” for a Bronx highway improvement. More anodyne projects—a public toilet for Prospect Park, for example—are sometimes fast-tracked, given final approval at their preliminary hearing.

So what is the PDC’s yardstick for successful design? “Our goal is not to turn people into clones of us, but to make their project the best it can be,” said Signe Nielsen, principal of environmental planners Mathews Nielsen and the commission’s current landscape architect. The “us” of the moment constitutes a fair cross-section of influential New Yorkers: Other commissioners include architect James Polshek, Paula Scher of Pentagram, and a former director of Forest City Ratner, James Stuckey. “Whether we are wealthy patrons or scruffy academics, professionals or artists,” Nordenson said in an interview, “we share the belief that we can build a discourse about what is good design or not and cut through the bureaucratic yadda yadda.”

At times, New York’s small design world can cause complications. At a recent hearing, Nielsen recused herself for one session as Anne Trumble of Mathews Nielsen gave the preliminary proposal for the firm’s DOT-sponsored redesign of West 125th Street just landward of the Hudson River. The renovation includes moving and resurfacing crosswalks to coincide with Columbia University’s planned satellite campus for the neighborhood. At the advice of the PDC, benches with rounded armrests will be scattered around the site, echoing the looped arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct above.

 


Rendering of a Department of Transportation-sponsored redesign by Mathews Nielsen of West 125th Street at Fairway Plaza; the PDC suggested bench arms to echo the shapes of the viaduct passing overhead.
Courtesy Mathews Nielson

And the commission has had its share of contention. An uproar over the Parks Department’s Washington Square renovation brought crowds to commission meetings in 2005. (To little avail: The project moved forward.) Another episode, described in former commissioner Michele Helene Bogart’s illuminating book about the commission The Politics of Urban Beauty, involved former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, whose enthusiasm for “yardarm” flagpoles and animal motifs led him to circumvent the Art Commission on a number of occasions. This prompted a lawsuit, eventually settled, from Commission President Reba White Williams.

More typically, though, the PDC expressly avoids confrontation. “If the person running the meeting senses there’s a mixed opinion, we table the project,” said Nielsen. These rare differences are ironed out at executive sessions that are closed to the public, and where, according to Bogart, members discuss projects candidly. “When the politics around a project are particularly sensitive, it’s better to have an executive session,” Bogart explained.

Politics do occasionally intrude. Former Commission President Jean Phifer of architecture firm Thomas Phifer & Partners described an attempt in the late 1990s to abolish the commission outright, spurred on by a Staten Island councilman. (Phifer is the author of the new book Public Art New York, which includes the photography of Francis Dzikowski that can be found accompanying this article.)

The commission oversees work of all sizes and uses, including Barretto Point Park in the Bronx, designed by landscape architect Ricardo Hinkle with designer Rachel Kramer.
Malcolm Pinckney/Courtesy NYC Parks & Recreation

Mayor Giuliani interceded on the commission’s behalf, but Giuliani was otherwise less supportive of the commission than Mayor Bloomberg has been. “The difference between now and then is that the commission under Giuliani had no clout,” Bogart said. Mayor Bloomberg’s support of the PDC and of urban design generally has helped bolster the commission’s efforts, as evidenced by his creation, with the PDC’s input, of the Design and Construction Excellence program. One more change under Mayor Bloomberg has been the reassertion of PDC review power in the case of private leases on public land, a move that has helped extend the commission’s reach.

The best evidence of the commission’s scope and vision is in the city’s public works over the past decade. Hudson River Park, the Fulton Street Transit Center, the
Van Cortlandt Park filtration plant—if these can be taken together as signal projects, what sort of design preferences emerge? A clarity of visual language; a clean, muscular sense of materiality; an emphasis on environmental sensitivity. Struggling to sum it up, Nielsen simply said, “I could say it in fancy archi-speak, but it boils down to this: Will I still want to look at it in 20 years?”

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Protest: Save the Memorial Coliseum
Part of what makes the Memorial Coliseum so special is that its massive roof rests on only four concrete pillars, seen here during construction.

This glass box in the center of Portland, Oregon, has hosted performances by The Beatles, Luciano Pavarotti, and Elvis Presley. The Dalai Lama has spoken within its cavernous volume, as did Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. The Trail Blazers, Portland’s beloved NBA franchise, won its sole championship in the building in 1977, and UCLA took home one of its many titles from the venue a decade before that. Allen Ginsberg, while attending the aforementioned Beatles concert, was struck by inspiration and wrote a poem entitled “Portland Coliseum.”

While its cultural history is impressive, that will not be enough to save the venue from demolition: The Memorial Coliseum has been threatened by a proposal to build a minor league baseball stadium in its place. But the structure’s exquisite beauty and refined engineering has motivated a host of architects, sports fans, historians, artists, and design enthusiasts to join together in an attempt to preserve it.

Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and dedicated on January 8, 1961, the Memorial Coliseum was shaped in part by Gordon Bunshaft, the firm’s best-known architect, famous for landmarks such as Lever House in New York. It is one of the more unique arenas in the United States, if not the world, because of its high level of transparency. The 12,000-seat seating bowl is structurally independent from the surrounding glass box, which, in spite of its massive four-block expanse, stands on only four columns. When the bowl’s encompassing curtains are drawn open (something that hasn’t happened in many years), the arena can be flooded with natural light.

An interior shot of the coliseum by  Julius Shulman shows how its unique structure allowed for entirely unobstructed views as well as ample natural light, a rarity in most indoor stadia.
Julius Shulman

In the book Modernism Rediscovered, a photograph by legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman (taken shortly after Memorial Coliseum’s opening) shows the hockey arena during the day without artificial light. This transparency also extends to the outer concourses. Instead of walking through a rabbit warren of interior circulation spaces closed off from the outside, visitors to Memorial Coliseum enter and exit the seating bowl with panoramic floor-to-ceiling views of the downtown skyline.

The coliseum sits in the Rose Quarter, a loosely knit sports-and-event complex that also includes the larger 20,000-seat Rose Garden arena. Most cities upgrading to new professional sports venues have torn down the arenas they replace. Most recently, Philadelphia tore down The Spectrum, which had a history at least as illustrious as Memorial Coliseum’s—but was arguably less architecturally significant. The Rose Garden, however, isn’t the biggest threat to Memorial Coliseum.

The demolition danger has arisen from proposed changes to PGE Park, another stadium across town. Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Beavers AAA baseball franchise and the Portland Timbers minor-league soccer team, has won initial approval from Major League Soccer to bring the sport to the Rose City. But MLS prefers its teams to play in soccer-only venues. That means Paulson’s baseball Beavers need to vacate PGE Park so it can be converted for soccer, necessitating the need for a new home for the baseball team.

The coliseum is still a stunning sight to behold, even as its demolition looms.
Matthew Ginn/Homestead Images

Initially, Paulson and Portland Mayor Sam Adams hatched a plan for a baseball stadium to replace Memorial Coliseum. But at a public open house in April to introduce the plan, Adams heard a chorus of opposition. Public and media skepticism for the plan has been overwhelming: Two opinion polls found a more than 8-to-1 advantage for those opposing razing the coliseum. The City Council was set to vote on a plan on April 22, but the mayor postponed the vote indefinitely after it became clear that he would lose 3-2. As of this writing, city planners and Paulson’s advisors are considering several alternate locations for a baseball stadium, though the Coliseum site remains an option.

Even if Memorial Coliseum avoids demolition, it could be significantly altered by future Rose Quarter plans. Although owned by the city, billionaire Blazers owner Paul Allen’s Oregon Arena Corporation (OAC) manages the site. The company has proposed opening an entertainment zone inside the coliseum, pending the removal of its distinctive seating bowl. An open-air music venue has also been proposed, which may reduce the arena to a mere skeleton. Research by William Macht, associate director of Portland State University’s Center for Real Estate, also shows that OAC’s management deal gives the company a financial incentive to break even in operating the coliseum, but a disincentive to turn a profit, contributing to the building’s current disrepair.

While the threat to the Coliseum highlights the difficulties faced by mid-20th-century modernist architecture when seeking acceptance as historically significant, there may also be optimism found in its boisterous defense. In this case, a small but vocal group of architects and activists may have successfully stared down the opposing interests of two billionaire sports franchise owners and a sex-scandal-plagued mayor desperate to complete a major project before a recall campaign this summer. So for the time being, when it rains in Portland, which is often, locals can seek solace in their glass palace.

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Under the Skin
Ernesto Neto has designed a new installation at the Park Avenue Armory.
Lisa Delgado

A Tyrannosaurus rex might elicit awe at the Museum of Natural History, but across town at the Park Avenue Armory, an equally majestic beast has taken up residence. A creation of Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, anthropodino is an arched labyrinth constructed out of wooden “bones” towering several feet high, like the rib cage of some gargantuan prehistoric reptile. The art installation opening tomorrow inaugurates the armory’s new annual program of commissioned artworks for the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall.

For some artists, the vast expanse of the Drill Hall space might have been “almost terrifying,” according to the armory’s consulting curator Tom Eccles, but Neto had already shown his flair for large-scale immersive works, with similarly scaled sensorial installations in Rome, Paris, and Malmö, Sweden. Neto grew up architecturally savvy.


 
 
photographs by Lisa Delgado
 
 

His father was a mechanical engineer and homebuilder, and as a boy, Neto often witnessed the construction process of his dad’s projects. Nowadays, the artist’s sensuous biomorphic installations, which blur the boundaries between art and architecture, are much in demand around the world. His Malmö Experience filled the entire Konsthall there with malleable Lycra environments shaped for visitors to touch and even sit within.

His latest—and largest—creation, anthropodino, reflects Neto’s fascination with two creatures that have each dominated the planet in their own time: dinosaurs and Homo sapiens. Dinosaurs represent awesome power, “But in the end they were too weak to survive the fast transformations of their own habitat,” Neto said. “This conflict between strength and fragility has a lot to do with all my work… and with the future of our own human civilization on Earth.” Like all of his installations, this one can be seen as “animal architecture,” he added.

The curvature of the Drill Hall’s barrel-vaulted roof inspired the forms of the installation, which consists of two parts: a “labyrinth” with a central dome rising up from the floor, and a canopy with spice-filled tentacles, or “drops,” hanging down from the hall’s iron trusses. Conceived in a different design language, the hanging portion is “not exactly the anthropodino, but a voice of it, a thinking of it, a breath of it,” Neto said.

The fabrication involved an eclectic high- and low-tech mix. Long Island City fabricator Jan Mollet cut the many pieces of birch plywood frame using a CNC mill, according to project manager Richard Griggs. In Neto’s home base, Rio de Janeiro, workers used hundred of yards of Lycra to hand-sew the skins of the tent-like, labyrinthine passageways and central dome, as well as the 190-foot-by-100-foot canopy. The cloth was then shipped to New York and fireproofed.

Right before the month-long exhibit opened, Neto and a team of a dozen helpers worked several days to put the elaborate installation together with a military precision befitting the Drill Hall. First, the canopy had to be hung from hooks attached to the trusses, according to armory president and CEO Rebecca Robertson. The heavy, spice-filled drops were then hoisted into the air using 80-foot articulating boom lifts, and laced onto the canopy by hand.

As for the labyrinth, the arches and central spine of the frame are slotted together by hand onsite, with no nails. It’s designed a bit like a huge version of a toy dinosaur model, curator Eccles said. Next, the wood frame had to be covered with the Lycra skin. Outside the labyrinth are areas devoted to rest and tactile sensations, including a pool filled with 28,000 plastic balls, a soft pink carpet to lie on, and a giant beanbag mattress.

Despite all the preparation, Neto’s installations have sometimes surprised him in the final forms they take. “He plans it meticulously, but it’s weight/counterweight, and it’s stretchy fabric, so when it all drops, he doesn’t 100 percent know how it’s going to work,” Robertson remarked. “It’s very alive, in a way."

Eavesdrop: Sara Hart

Material Guy
New York architect Markus Dochantschi, principal of StudioMDA, has a plum project. His firm is working pro bono with a Malawian architect to design the Raising Malawi School for Girls. The boarding school is a project of Raising Malawi, a charity founded in 2006 by the unlikely duo of pop icon Madonna and rabbi and kabbalist Michael Berg to help the two million orphaned children of the impoverished southeast African country. We hear that the school will have no religious affiliation, but instead will be based on the British system, such as those that Madge’s offspring, Lourdes and Rocco, attend.

Mint Julep With That Pink Slip?
It’s not all death rattles and pink slips, just mostly. We were sad to learn that Gensler is closing its Wall Street office and moving survivors to Midtown. This isn’t firm-wide shrinkage, though. By all accounts, San Francisco and Dallas, to name only two of Gensler’s 31 offices, are in good shape. Speaking of Dallas, the town seems recession-proof, at least compared to the east and west coasts. HKS, architect for the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, is thriving. Elsewhere, New Orleans–based Perez, APC, is said to be in good shape, and ditto for Brown Chambless Architects in Montgomery, AL. Anyway, some firms seem to be booming, possibly because so much misery is concentrated in New York. Can it be true that the New York office of global biggie BBG/BBGM has defenestrated 75 percent of its employees from the 25th floor of the Empire State Building and is down to two projects, leaving it too poor to buy a vowel? Is it also true that CetraRuddy is staying alive doing small lobby renovations and storage spaces? We hope everyone will rebound soon, but for now the Big Apple has been rebranded as The City With No Pity.


The Knock-Off Artists

What Manhattan architecture firm thinks it’s all right to ask a local manufacturer to spend months designing and detailing a custom curtain wall, then rolls up the drawings, specifications, and shop drawings and sends them to China for a cheaper, second-rate copy? We can’t wait to see how the inferior knockoff holds up in the unfriendly New York elements. Hint: The building is under construction in the Way West Village, and that’s all we’re saying at the moment. In future posts, we’ll refer to this firm as the Willful Infringers.

Send pints of bourbon and subpoenas to eavesdrop@archpaper.com

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Nehemiah's New Look
The Nehemiah Houses by Alexander Gorlin.
Courtesy AGA

In 1975, I interviewed I. D. Robbins, the founder of Nehemiah Houses, at the organization’s first project in East New York, Brooklyn. Nehemiah, named after the Old Testament prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem, had just delivered new homes to the neighborhood’s working-class residents for the astonishingly low price of $40,000. At that time, the neighborhood was a place of “stunning devastation, glaring needs, abandonment, and rubble,” according to local community organizer Michael Gecan, and Nehemiah played a major role in making it a thriving community.


The houses bring an unexpected splash of color to the neighborhood.
 

The organization achieved this transformation by replicating the mass-produced building techniques of the postwar suburb, bringing, as Robbins put it, “Levittown to the city.” The Nehemiah formula included partnering with community-based religious organizations as co-developers, and convincing the city to offer free land on which to build. A continuous concrete foundation slab would be poured, and topped by freestanding, two-story residences. Robbins insisted on building only low-density neighborhoods. “Single-family is the way to go,” as he said, “because families take pride in their homes.”

Using this successful strategy, the group has built thousands of homes in New York, and admirably transformed neighborhoods around the city. But the architecture of the Nehemiah houses—replicas of medieval half-timbered residences marching uniformly down the block—is less than desirable. The historian Richard Plunz claimed that they “harken back to 19th-century mill housing,” and I asked Robbins about this in my interview. I pointed to Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, which had been created in the 1920s with more modern architecture and thoughtful landscaping. Robbins was furious with the comparison, calling Sunnyside’s builders out of touch with the aspirations of working New Yorkers for the pleasures of middle-class life. I told him I thought that was precisely what Sunnyside had achieved, and Robbins asked me to leave his office.

Now Nehemiah has finally created a large new project inspired as much by the housing tradition of Holland as by the streetscapes of Brooklyn. Designed by Alexander Gorlin Architects, the development Spring Creek is built on a 45-acre former landfill in East New York. It will eventually contain more than 800 homes that have little in common with the flat brick facades of earlier Nehemiah housing.

Gorlin is better known for his luxury houses, though he brings the same level of detail to his affordable work, as well.

The commission came about after Gorlin wrote The New American Townhouse in 1999 and wanted to work on larger-scale, socially responsible housing. He wrote to HPD commissioner Richard Roberts, who suggested that he contact Nehemiah, and the group’s general manager Ron Walters was not un-receptive to a new direction for the organization. Gorlin took him on an architecture tour of Dutch housing estates, including MVRDV’s Eastern Docklands and J.J.P. Oud’s 1927 Hoek of Holland project, and it convinced Walters to embrace the idea of a modern housing estate.

But Gorlin, who is best known for his luxury homes, was told that every plumbing turn would cost $75, and this mattered greatly to the final cost of the house. Despite these constraints, Gorlin has designed several different house types that sell for an average of $153,000. The two-story, single-family unit is composed of two, 80-square-foot modules prefabricated by Capsys in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then covered with 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets of colorful HardiPlank. The somewhat flat facades do have small protruding bays, indentations with vestibules, attached canopies, and metal stairs.

Through this economical use of prefabricated components and clipped-on elements, Gorlin has achieved something very important in New York. He has respected the Nehemiah mandate that its houses convey the notion of homeownership to first-time buyers—but not at the cost of importing an ersatz identity to the streets of Brooklyn. And he has done this with perhaps the freshest approach to affordable housing in the city today, showing that urbanity and community need not be mutually exclusive.

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Chairs on Film

 
 

Objectified
Directed by Gary Hustwit
IFC Center, 323 6th Ave.
Opens May 8 

Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Objectified is a primer that tells you much of what you already know: Everything in the man-made landscape is designed by someone, and much of it isn’t working or good to look at.

As he interviews design titans from the forthright Dieter Rams of Braun (on fundamentals of aesthetics, usefulness, and understandability) to Jonathan Ive of Apple (on the separation of function from form), what is most striking is Hustwit’s assumption that his audience suffers from design illiteracy. 

He dwells on process, as Dan Formosa and Davin Stowell of Smart Design recall crafting an ergonomic handle for a peeler, beginning with the problem that a conventional peeler, which hadn’t evolved in years, was a struggle for someone with arthritis. And, in general, Hustwit lets his subjects sound off with their objects nearby: Karim Rashid wonders out loud why digital cameras still look like cameras through which film moved.

The conversations in Objectified are more aggregation than argument or debate. Yet the film’s best asset isn’t Hustwit’s analysis, but his eye. His film (shot mostly by Luke Geissbuhler) can make you feel the impact of design, whether it’s observing a product on a work bench, or viewing it in the landscape, which can be an office, a city street, or a landfill.

And that landfill, warns Mark Newson, is where most design—by him and anyone else—will end up. Who will then take up Rashid’s dare to design mobile phones or laptops in cardboard? In the film’s exquisite opening credit sequence, a CNC router cuts the word “objectified” into white plastic, slowly and deliberately. Typefaces in the form of products are rendered in three dimensions. The waste from that process is brushed off-camera, a hint of the industrial waste crisis that still awaits design resolution.

That sequence also points to the film’s shortcomings. Hustwit has an aesthete’s eye, but he suffers from an aesthete’s ear. He only talks to designers and those in the clubby circle who write about them. That’s not to say that Rob Walker of The New York Times Magazine isn’t eloquent, pleading for objects that have stood the test of time. We just miss other parts of the design equation.

In a candid moment, Mark Newson says, “I just wish people would be more critical of design, and of designers, who are responsible for designing some pretty nasty stuff.” Where are the consumers who might feel that way? And no corporate decision-makers respond to David Kelley of IDEO, who says, “Bad design is where the customer thinks it’s their fault that something doesn’t work. People should demand more from the things they own.”

The sequential interview approach made for fascinating testimony in Helvetica, Hustwit’s first feature documentary about the transformative effect of a typeface. In Objectified, you feel there’s more to the problems facing design than what you hear from the creators of high-end consumer products, the most glamorous sector of industrial design. Something is surely astir in the trenches.

Also, like so many products that are overtaken by the new, Objectified has been eclipsed by the now. Since the film was finished, the automotive sector in the United States has collapsed. So has finance, which was nothing if not a field of purely designed products. (Eerily, the designers at SMART discuss creating red ATM kiosks for Bank of America, which has now gotten at least $45 billion to stay afloat from the government.)

If it’s true, as the designers say, that this is a time for opportunity and vision, by the film’s end you’re impatient for them to get beyond the familiar generalizations.

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Walk This (Arch) Way
An original drawing of the Manhattan Bridge archway by Carrere and Hastings. The archway is to reopen to the public this summer after decades of closure.
COURTESY DUMBO IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT

Long barred to the public, a stone-covered archway beneath the Manhattan Bridge in Dumbo is being reopened for public access this summer, revealing for the first time in decades the elegant public space designed by renowned Beaux Arts firm Carrère and Hastings, which created both approaches. Thanks to the advocacy of the Dumbo Improvement District, the archway is also expected to serve as a stage for a variety of public programming, as well as a temporary summer site for a public marketplace known as the New Amsterdam Market.

Much of the new programming, including the market, has yet to be formally announced pending city approvals, according to the district, which emphasizes that discussions with public officials are ongoing. “The Dumbo Improvement District is working closely with the Department of Transportation and the City of New York to readapt and unveil The Archway,” the district said in a statement. “Plans are in the works for many exciting programs; we have been approached by the New Amsterdam Market among others. In the spirit of Earth Day 2009, we are glad to reclaim this incredible community space.”

The reopening of the historic archway, which is already publicly accessible, marks a significant milestone for advocates who have slowly been reclaiming the urban fabric around the bridge’s piers. “The archway connects Dumbo east to west. It’s crucial to the development of the neighborhood,” Kate Kerrigan, executive director of the improvement district, said in an interview.

Work on the archway, which had previously been used for storage by the Department of Transportation (DOT), will improve pedestrian connectivity while providing a number of new design features to make it more amenable to the public. In collaboration with the improvement district, Rogers Marvel Architects has designed benches for the 45-foot-high, 7,000-square-foot space, along with subtle lighting to improve safety and to highlight the original architectural elements.
 

The stunning space is expected to host a variety of public events this summer.
Jane KoJIMA/Courtesy Dumbo Improvement District

The new space would offer a stunning—if provisional—backdrop for the New Amsterdam Market, a project spearheaded by Robert LaValva, a former planner for the Department of City Planning who has evangelized for the role public markets can play as both civic gathering spaces and a key link in the sustainable supply chain. “My interest in urban systems comes from my background as a planner, in how the surrounding region can supply the city,” he said.

LaValva ultimately envisions a permanent showcase of purveyors that runs year-round indoors and offers a wide variety of goods, similar to the Borough Market in London or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. He has long had his eye on the old Fulton Fish Market, but the ambiguous status of the South Street Seaport has made that site unavailable, at least through the summer. While LaValva continues his quest for a year-round location, he would welcome a temporary summer space under the Manhattan Bridge, perhaps setting up once per month, he said. “The archway is a wonderful space for a market,” LaValva told AN. “But the goal remains to find a permanent home.”

If all goes as planned, the market is expected to make its debut at the archway on June 28. However, an official reopening date for the public space has not been set, and much of the site’s programming is still being formalized, according to the improvement district, which expects to announce archway events in the coming weeks.

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A Landmark Ruling?
Chicago's East Village Historic District is the target of a lawsuit that could unseat the city's landmarks law, and those of other cities in the process.
Courtesy CCL

Preservation alarms are ringing at the specter of Chicago’s architectural patrimony—Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright—being pummeled by the wrecking ball in the wake of a court challenge that has raised constitutional questions about the city’s 41-year-old landmarks ordinance.

On March 11, attorneys for the city asked the Illinois Supreme Court to review a lower court’s ruling that blindsided preservation advocates by deeming the Chicago ordinance so rife with “vague, ambiguous, and overly broad” language that it may violate due process and equal protection rights. Meanwhile, preservation agencies around the nation have scrambled to file briefs in support of Chicago’s landmarks law, which if invalidated would not only threaten more than 9,000 protected properties in the city, but embolden challenges to ordinances around the country—including those in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Seattle—that mirror the law in Chicago.

“If the precedent is set in Illinois,” said Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, “it could open the floodgates for the loss of preservation ordinances throughout the country.”


The East Village is known for its working class streetscapes.
Courtesy CCL
 
 

The case originates not in the nuances of pediments and porches but in what the plaintiffs contend is the flagrant abuse of the landmark process to make an end-run around zoning rules. The complaint was first brought by residents of two landmark districts: the Arlington-Deming District in the affluent Lincoln Park area, a collection of 1890s mansions and Second Empire–style houses; and the East Village District, comprised of working-class streetscapes dating to the late 1800s. Both neighborhoods had been subject to out-of-context new development, and in both cases, local aldermen had moved to downzone the areas to preserve neighborhood character.

In their complaint, Albert Hanna, a longtime Lincoln Park resident and land-use critic, and Carol Mrowka, a real estate agent, argued that these landmark districts were created only after downzoning attempts were separately thwarted. (The Arlington-Deming rezone was scotched following a successful court challenge by Hanna.)

“Landmarking was a complete afterthought,” said Thomas Ramsdell, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “What happened here is that when two zoning measures failed, two different aldermen, using the exact same criteria, simply said: Let’s landmark the area.” The result, Ramsdell argued, were districts cobbled together from a hodge-podge of buildings that had no coherence as landmark districts. A trial court didn’t buy those arguments, however, and dismissed the case in 2006.

But on January 30, an appellate court sided with the plaintiffs, finding that the seven criteria used to evaluate Chicago landmarks are unconstitutionally vague.
In its decision, a three-judge panel said the criteria—which use wording such as “significant” or “unique” to describe potential landmarks—could apply to virtually any property in the city. Moreover, the court rejected the city’s argument that landmarks commission members were experts well-versed in such terms, and further found that qualifications for commission members were untenably vague. With that, the case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

 

 
The Arlington-Deming Historic District, another neighborhood directly threatened by the lawsuit, is home to 1890s mansions and Second Empire-style houses.
Courtesy preservation chicago

For the time being, at least, the city’s landmarks law remains in full effect. Whether or not the state’s supreme court weighs in—a decision is expected by June—a final ruling may not come for at least a year. And given the considerable case law on the matter, some experts see the Illinois ruling as an “oddball decision” that is likely to be reversed.

“What we’re looking at here is an intermediate court decision in a state court. It doesn’t carry a lot of persuasive authority around the country,” said Julia H. Miller, special counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Indeed, a federal district court, ruling on a similar challenge to Chicago’s landmarks law in 1994, declared it consistent with the state and federal constitutions.

Regrettably, the ultimate outcome is likely to have little impact on what the plaintiffs maintained was their true target: Chicago’s dysfunctional political culture. “There is no comprehensive plan in Chicago,” Ramsdell said. “We have 50 fiefdoms—we leave land use up to the individual aldermen of the 50 wards. It looks like we’re out to undo historic preservation,” he continued. “That’s not the case. We want the city to have a strong landmarks ordinance that can’t be abused this way.”

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Recession Tales: James Polshek

In the third of AN's conversations with architects about past recessions, Julie V. Iovine talks to James Polshek, senior design counsel and a founder in 1963 of Polshek Partnership Architects, who will be presented with the Augustus Graham Medal by the Brooklyn Museum on April 23.


James Polshek in 1972.
 
elmer kardos

 

The Architect's Newspaper: Which downturn has been hardest on you so far?

James Polshek: 1972—that was the big traumatic one. My memory of the later ones is not as vivid as when there was no gasoline or oil in the ’70s.

Before that, things were going great. I went to Japan in 1962 when I was 32 for almost two years. It was a busy time of unlimited possibilities, and I was doing these big $100 million laboratory projects.

When I came back in ’63, I was back to doing little remodeling jobs and consulting for the New York State Mental Hygiene fund that was very progressive then, hiring young architects to consult on bigger projects.

I was sharing an office at 295 Madison with Richard Kaplan, Michael Zimmer, and Walfredo Toscanini, grandson of the conductor. We each had a corner office in the tower at the top. We had an agreement that whoever got the busiest first would take over the whole space. And I got it. We grew to about 45 people.

Then in 1969, I was working on a student center at Wesleyan University when there was a sudden, gigantic drop in the market and they cancelled it. That was the beginning of rumblings from the Middle East. Then in 1972, we had a fire. I had these two apartments on 9th Street side by side: one my family lived in and the other was a kind of branch office because we had grown so large. For me, the fire was really symbolic, like Thor had thrown his lightning bolt.

Did it really feel that desperate?

Well, we were down to about five people, from 45. I recall talking to my wife at the time, saying I thought it was time to call [Ulrich] Franzen (I had worked for him years before) and tell him that maybe it was time for me to go back to work. She said, don’t be silly, something will happen, but I was really considering closing the office. I didn’t engage in a job hunt, but I did look at ads. There wasn’t much around, anyway. I just didn’t want to fail.

At the same time, though, we were doing some interesting planning studies for Westinghouse. And we did the Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park. That turned out to be important as it proved my commitment to preservation.

Did you go into preservation as part of a survival strategy?

You can say strategy, but preservation, like planning and feasibility studies, was also a philosophical predilection. It had to do with my own eclectic set of interests and my getting easily bored. I really believe in preservation, particularly when it’s in conjunction with the addition of something new.

When I was at school at Yale, historic buildings were not even looked at, but I thought preservation was a moral obligation. I didn’t share the agenda of that generation of architects who came out of school after World War II, Harvard in particular, who were kind of mini master-builders. I think that in architecture, at its most ideal, the architect is somewhat anonymous. That encouraged me to find ways to create new architecture that was not always visible, not de novo: underground, historic preservation, interiors, healthcare, and laboratories.

When did you start teaching? Was it to support your practice?

I became dean of Columbia in 1972, but I didn’t seek it out. Max Bond recommended me and I had every reason to agree because things were really bad. And it stayed depressing all the way until about 1976.

Some architects weather downturns by looking abroad for work.

That’s another strategy, but not one we entertained. In the ’70s, many big firms were running to the Middle East for work. They were making presentations to the Shah of Iran. I was too young to get offers of that kind, but I was absolutely disinclined anyway. And I think there was an unspoken consensus in my office because everyone had little children. They didn’t want to go off to Saudi Arabia or China. And we still don’t.

Was there something else you did go after?

Feasibility studies—they don’t often result in buildings, but they can. They’re sometimes intellectually provocative and they force you to collaborate with engineers. We worked on a plutonium processing plant until everyone realized how dangerous it was. And on a prototype to develop a new type of industrial plant—it was the most eclectic bunch of stuff you can imagine, but it all helped in our recovery. Studies go on, whether there’s a recession or not.

I was one of Philip Johnson’s adoptees and went to those soirees where architects criticize one another. It was a parallel universe, when Eisenman and those guys were dividing up the world into whites and grays. I said, I’m not white or gray. I’m pink, and I’m not going to be part of this, and I wasn’t. It is, however, important to establish a reputation within the profession for quality of work and integrity. But it’s even more important to survive.
 

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Comment: Worlds Away
Canadian architect Clive Grout has designed the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai's 2010 world expo, but the project may not be built.
Courtesy Clive Grout Architect

In May 1956, a young federal employee named Jack Masey was asked to create a pavilion for an agricultural exposition in Afghanistan. The United States embassy in Kabul had been lobbying for a pavilion ever since it learned that the Soviets and the Chinese were planning large shows of their own. With the fair scheduled to open in August, Masey had just three months to create a pavilion that would help the U.S. outshine its Cold War rivals.

Masey, an army veteran and graduate of Yale’s architecture school, contacted Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome. Within days, Fuller had drawn plans for a 110-foot-diameter building, which was fabricated in the U.S. and airlifted to Kabul. There, it was erected by Afghani workers, who, according to Masey, were visibly proud of their involvement. (By contrast, the Soviet and Chinese pavilions were built by imported technicians.) Thousands of Afghans visited the dome, which contained a working TV studio and other displays of American know-how. A photo taken in the pavilion during the fair shows a group of young men in traditional garb, suitably agog.

Masey tells this tale in his new book Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Lars Müller Publishers, 2008). The book, coauthored with Conway Lloyd Morgan, couldn’t be more timely.

Next year, the eyes of the world will be on Shanghai, where the Chinese government will host a world exposition (informally called a world’s fair) from May 1 to October 31. Nearly 200 countries are building pavilions, many by important architects chosen in national competitions. The host city will try to match the showmanship of last summer’s Beijing games, and, unlike the made-for-television Olympics, the expo will likely attract tens of millions of Chinese visitors.

But whether the U.S. will be at the fair is still an open question. Under a misguided 1999 law, the State Department is prohibited from spending money on international expositions. Last year, the department authorized a private group, headed by Washington, D.C. lawyer Ellen Eliasoph and California amusement park executive Nick Winslow, to solicit donations for a privately funded pavilion. Last fall, unable to find sponsors, they abandoned their quest. Now they are trying again, and the Obama administration, according to Winslow, is rallying behind them.

Meanwhile, Clive Grout, a Canadian architect chosen by Winslow and Eliasoph, has designed a U.S. pavilion that may or may not get built. Time is running out. “The U.S. government can only commit to participating in the Shanghai Expo if the necessary funding from the private sector can first be secured,” a spokesman for the U.S. Consul General inShanghai confirmed by email last week.

That the United States wouldn’t attend a giant international gathering, at a time when so much is at stake in U.S.–Chinese relations, seems unimaginable. Sadly, though, it is not unprecedented. The U.S. embarrassed itself with a tacky pavilion at the Seville expo in 1992 (timed to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, with the U.S. meant to be the guest of honor). It ignored the next expo (in Hannover, Germany, in 2000), insulting a crucial ally. At the insistence of Toyota, whose retired chairman conceived the 2005 expo in Aichi, Japan, the U.S. did have a pavilion. But the building’s creators, who had to rely on corporate funding, put more thought into the VIP suite (where those sponsors could entertain clients) than into the main event, a film about Benjamin Franklin.

If the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai gets built, it, too, will have a lavish VIP suite, Winslow said. The exhibition will be by BRC Imagination Arts (the company behind the Franklin movie in Aichi). The building is by Grout, who designed a number of pavilions for the 1986 Vancouver Expo, and went on to masterplan the 2002 Swiss Expo.

According to Grout, the pavilion he has designed for Shanghai—where the theme is “Better City, Better Life”—will be “a celebration of an American metropolis in 2030, focusing on health, sustainability, and community.” The 60,000-square-foot building will employ “a very contemporary vocabulary of metal and glass,” he said. The glass will be covered in a decorative film made by 3M, a sponsor of the pavilion. Grout is waiting to see which other companies give money, so that—if there’s time—he can incorporate their products into the design as well.

As his clients scrounge for handouts, Grout is collaborating with a Chinese architecture and engineering firm, which is creating working drawings even as design development continues. “We are under tremendous pressure,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time to study or investigate. I’m just focused on the fact that this is going to open in May of 2010, and we’ve got to get it into the ground. Until somebody tells me different, that’s my responsibility, to keep it alive.” He added: “We don’t yet know how much money is going to be available. It’s not the way to create a crackerjack pavilion.”
 


Fuller's dome landed at Expo '67 in Montreal, where the Soviet hammer and sickle made a definite statement.
Courtesy Lars Müller Publishers
 

That is a far cry from Masey’s day, when pavilions were symbols of national pride and funded by the government. Masey’s employer, the United States Information Agency (USIA), made its first foray into exhibition diplomacy with barge- and truck-borne displays touting the Marshall Plan, helping to win the hearts and minds of western Europeans, and it participated in hundreds of large expos and small trade fairs over the next five decades. According to Masey, it was the USIA that gave Fuller, George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Ivan Chermayeff, and Thomas Geismar their first peacetime commissions.

Among the highlights of Masey’s tenure was the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Best known as the site of the “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev, the fair attracted 2.7 million visitors during its six-week run. The interest of Soviet citizens was, according to observers, palpable.

Even more poignant is the tale of the 1956 exhibition in Brussels. Though the fair had an atomic energy theme, the U.S. chose to present its human side in a stunning circular building by Edward Durell Stone. (Among other exhibits, there was a fashion show organized by Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee.) A separate building was designed to house an exhibition on race relations in America. The goal was to counter Soviet claims that the United States, with its history of segregation, was in no position to lecture the Soviets on human rights. Called Unfinished Business, it depicted progress being made toward racial equality.

The show created a furor at home, with Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia writing to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the pavilion represented “an unwarranted invasion of the rights and prerogatives of the states of the south,” where “segregated society has proved to be in the best interest of all races concerned.” The exhibit was replaced with one devoted to public health, which Masey calls “an unworthy end to one of the most successful examples of architectural propaganda ever attempted by the United States.”

But there were to be other successful U.S. pavilions, at Montreal in 1967 (a giant Fuller dome) and Osaka in 1970 (a fascinating, inflatable building). Indeed, since at least the 19th century, world’s fairs have produced important architecture, as the assumed temporariness of the structures frees designers to experiment. (Both the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower were built for international expositions.) Recent fairs have been filled with estimable structures, from MVRDV’s startling Dutch pavilion in Hannover to Foreign Office Architects’ Spanish offering in Aichi. In Shanghai, expect great things from Denmark’s BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), Italy’s BiCuadro, and Spain’s Miralles Tagliabue EMBT. England’s pavilion was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, chosen in a competition over Zaha Hadid and London Eye designers Marks Barfield.

But the U.S. no longer turns to its top talent. Ironically, Shanghai officials commissioned Yung Ho Chang, head of the architecture program at MIT, and Edwin Schlossberg, a prominent New York exhibition designer, to create their pavilion for Shanghai. Chinese business leaders have chosen American experts to sell themselves on their own home turf. 

Congress should immediately end the ban on public funding for international expositions, and allocate the $100 million or so it will take to build a pavilion worth texting home about. Jack Masey, 85 and still working, might have a few ideas.

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Comment: Worlds Away
Canadian architect Clive Grout has designed the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai's 2010 world expo, but the project may not be built.
Courtesy Clive Grout Architect

In May 1956, a young federal employee named Jack Masey was asked to create a pavilion for an agricultural exposition in Afghanistan. The United States embassy in Kabul had been lobbying for a pavilion ever since it learned that the Soviets and the Chinese were planning large shows of their own. With the fair scheduled to open in August, Masey had just three months to create a pavilion that would help the U.S. outshine its Cold War rivals.

Masey, an army veteran and graduate of Yale’s architecture school, contacted Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome. Within days, Fuller had drawn plans for a 110-foot-diameter building, which was fabricated in the U.S. and airlifted to Kabul. There, it was erected by Afghani workers, who, according to Masey, were visibly proud of their involvement. (By contrast, the Soviet and Chinese pavilions were built by imported technicians.) Thousands of Afghans visited the dome, which contained a working TV studio and other displays of American know-how. A photo taken in the pavilion during the fair shows a group of young men in traditional garb, suitably agog.

Masey tells this tale in his new book Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Lars Müller Publishers, 2008). The book, coauthored with Conway Lloyd Morgan, couldn’t be more timely.

Next year, the eyes of the world will be on Shanghai, where the Chinese government will host a world exposition (informally called a world’s fair) from May 1 to October 31. Nearly 200 countries are building pavilions, many by important architects chosen in national competitions. The host city will try to match the showmanship of last summer’s Beijing games, and, unlike the made-for-television Olympics, the expo will likely attract tens of millions of Chinese visitors.

But whether the U.S. will be at the fair is still an open question. Under a misguided 1999 law, the State Department is prohibited from spending money on international expositions. Last year, the department authorized a private group, headed by Washington, D.C. lawyer Ellen Eliasoph and California amusement park executive Nick Winslow, to solicit donations for a privately funded pavilion. Last fall, unable to find sponsors, they abandoned their quest. Now they are trying again, and the Obama administration, according to Winslow, is rallying behind them.

Meanwhile, Clive Grout, a Canadian architect chosen by Winslow and Eliasoph, has designed a U.S. pavilion that may or may not get built. Time is running out. “The U.S. government can only commit to participating in the Shanghai Expo if the necessary funding from the private sector can first be secured,” a spokesman for the U.S. Consul General inShanghai confirmed by email last week.

That the United States wouldn’t attend a giant international gathering, at a time when so much is at stake in U.S.–Chinese relations, seems unimaginable. Sadly, though, it is not unprecedented. The U.S. embarrassed itself with a tacky pavilion at the Seville expo in 1992 (timed to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, with the U.S. meant to be the guest of honor). It ignored the next expo (in Hannover, Germany, in 2000), insulting a crucial ally. At the insistence of Toyota, whose retired chairman conceived the 2005 expo in Aichi, Japan, the U.S. did have a pavilion. But the building’s creators, who had to rely on corporate funding, put more thought into the VIP suite (where those sponsors could entertain clients) than into the main event, a film about Benjamin Franklin.

If the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai gets built, it, too, will have a lavish VIP suite, Winslow said. The exhibition will be by BRC Imagination Arts (the company behind the Franklin movie in Aichi). The building is by Grout, who designed a number of pavilions for the 1986 Vancouver Expo, and went on to masterplan the 2002 Swiss Expo.

According to Grout, the pavilion he has designed for Shanghai—where the theme is “Better City, Better Life”—will be “a celebration of an American metropolis in 2030, focusing on health, sustainability, and community.” The 60,000-square-foot building will employ “a very contemporary vocabulary of metal and glass,” he said. The glass will be covered in a decorative film made by 3M, a sponsor of the pavilion. Grout is waiting to see which other companies give money, so that—if there’s time—he can incorporate their products into the design as well.

As his clients scrounge for handouts, Grout is collaborating with a Chinese architecture and engineering firm, which is creating working drawings even as design development continues. “We are under tremendous pressure,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time to study or investigate. I’m just focused on the fact that this is going to open in May of 2010, and we’ve got to get it into the ground. Until somebody tells me different, that’s my responsibility, to keep it alive.” He added: “We don’t yet know how much money is going to be available. It’s not the way to create a crackerjack pavilion.”
 


Fuller's dome landed at Expo '67 in Montreal, where the Soviet hammer and sickle made a definite statement.
Courtesy Lars Müller Publishers
 

That is a far cry from Masey’s day, when pavilions were symbols of national pride and funded by the government. Masey’s employer, the United States Information Agency (USIA), made its first foray into exhibition diplomacy with barge- and truck-borne displays touting the Marshall Plan, helping to win the hearts and minds of western Europeans, and it participated in hundreds of large expos and small trade fairs over the next five decades. According to Masey, it was the USIA that gave Fuller, George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Ivan Chermayeff, and Thomas Geismar their first peacetime commissions.

Among the highlights of Masey’s tenure was the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Best known as the site of the “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev, the fair attracted 2.7 million visitors during its six-week run. The interest of Soviet citizens was, according to observers, palpable.

Even more poignant is the tale of the 1956 exhibition in Brussels. Though the fair had an atomic energy theme, the U.S. chose to present its human side in a stunning circular building by Edward Durell Stone. (Among other exhibits, there was a fashion show organized by Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee.) A separate building was designed to house an exhibition on race relations in America. The goal was to counter Soviet claims that the United States, with its history of segregation, was in no position to lecture the Soviets on human rights. Called Unfinished Business, it depicted progress being made toward racial equality.

The show created a furor at home, with Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia writing to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the pavilion represented “an unwarranted invasion of the rights and prerogatives of the states of the south,” where “segregated society has proved to be in the best interest of all races concerned.” The exhibit was replaced with one devoted to public health, which Masey calls “an unworthy end to one of the most successful examples of architectural propaganda ever attempted by the United States.”

But there were to be other successful U.S. pavilions, at Montreal in 1967 (a giant Fuller dome) and Osaka in 1970 (a fascinating, inflatable building). Indeed, since at least the 19th century, world’s fairs have produced important architecture, as the assumed temporariness of the structures frees designers to experiment. (Both the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower were built for international expositions.) Recent fairs have been filled with estimable structures, from MVRDV’s startling Dutch pavilion in Hannover to Foreign Office Architects’ Spanish offering in Aichi. In Shanghai, expect great things from Denmark’s BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), Italy’s BiCuadro, and Spain’s Miralles Tagliabue EMBT. England’s pavilion was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, chosen in a competition over Zaha Hadid and London Eye designers Marks Barfield.

But the U.S. no longer turns to its top talent. Ironically, Shanghai officials commissioned Yung Ho Chang, head of the architecture program at MIT, and Edwin Schlossberg, a prominent New York exhibition designer, to create their pavilion for Shanghai. Chinese business leaders have chosen American experts to sell themselves on their own home turf. 

Congress should immediately end the ban on public funding for international expositions, and allocate the $100 million or so it will take to build a pavilion worth texting home about. Jack Masey, 85 and still working, might have a few ideas.

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Dream Team
The Smithsonian Institute has selected Freelon Adjaye Bond to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Courtesy Freelon Adjaye Bond

The Smithsonian has selected a team led by London-based David Adjaye to build the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the last major institution planned for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The team, known as Freelon Adjaye Bond, is a joint venture between the Freelon Group, Adjaye/Associates, and Davis Brody Bond Aedas. The venture in turn is paired with SmithGroup.

“Their vision and spirit of collaboration moved all members of the design competition jury,” said NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch III in a press release issued this morning. The museum, due for completion in 2015, will cost $500 million and be located on the southwest corner of the intersection of 14th Street and Constitution, across from the National Museum of American History and about 800 feet northeast of the Washington Monument.

“It is kind of like being in the Sweet Sixteen,” Bunch said of the selection. “We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m going to enjoy it for a while.”

Freelon Adjaye Bond has deep roots with both the museum and Washington. Before the competition began, Phil Freelon, president of the Freelon Group, and the late Max Bond, partner at Davis Brody Bond Aedas, oversaw the museum program planning process (Bond passed away on February 18, 2009). And all three firms in the joint venture are currently designing new branch libraries for the D.C. Public Library system.

"The joy of this moment comes with mixed emotions,” said Steven Davis, a partner at Davis Brody Bond Aedas. “Max Bond, who was my partner for over 20 years, worked tirelessly in conceiving the programming and design of our submission. We miss him especially on this incredible day.”


A rendering of the central hall as conceived by Freelon Adjaye Bond.
Courtesy Freelon Adjaye Bond

The team faced tough competition from a mix of avant-garde and establishment firms, ranging from Diller Scofidio + Renfro to Norman Foster to the duo of Devrouax & Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed.

The winning design—which Freelon stressed is more an expression of concepts, and likely to change significantly—comprises a multistory stone plinth open on the north and south ends, with a pair of inverted, bronze-paneled trapezoids stacked on top of it. The team has cited both a crown and Yoruban columns as inspiration.

The interior of the museum will soar 100 feet, with exhibit spaces radiating from a center spiral ramp, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The procession will culminate in a rooftop garden.

“It had to be a project about celebrating a journey and looking toward the future,” said Adjaye.

All four firms on the winning team have extensive museum and institutional experience: Freelon designed the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore, and the firm was selected last month to design the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights.


A model of the winning design.
Ken Rahaim/Courtesy SMithsonian Institute

Adjaye recently completed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, while Davis Brody Bond Aedas is involved in planning the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. SmithGroup has perhaps the most extensive experience with federal cultural projects, most recently completing the National Audio Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia.

Adjaye, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, was born in Tanzania but raised in London. Based in London and with a New York satellite office, he will be the design lead, while Freelon is the architect of record.

The competition was not without controversy, not surprising given the political sensitivity of its program. Several minority architects—though none involved in the competition—demanded the museum select an African-American-led firm and complained that too many of the finalist firms were predominantly white. These calls, in turn, raised opposition from both white and black architects, who worried that such calls could put pressure on the selection committee to choose based on race rather than design excellence.