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How mass timber could transform our cities (really)
Preserving American Landscapes
Architects must do more to protect our threatened public lands
Although debating the ideal size, role, and scope of the federal government is one of America’s great national pastimes, there has typically been surprisingly broad and consistent support for the Antiquities Act of 1906, a landmark conservation law passed by Congress and enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt 111 years ago.
The law, generally speaking, grants the United States government—particularly, the President—broad authority in designating federally owned lands as national monuments. The effort is made as part of a federally recognized network of protections, which includes the National Park Service, in order to retain and perpetuate public use of wild, scenic, and culturally significant landscapes. The Antiquities Act is responsible for securing some of the most sublime and irreplaceable landscapes the country has to offer, such as the Grand Canyon, Giant Sequoia National Monument, Devils Tower, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, for current and future generations. The act, more or less, protects America’s—and Americans’—most literal and shared heritage: land.
But like so many other cultural and political norms and traditions under the new presidential administration, the Antiquities Act is facing an existential threat.
This April, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior not only to review 27 specific national monuments created under the last three presidential administrations but also to review the law itself, calling the Antiquities Act a “massive federal land grab.” President Ronald Reagan has been the only president not to name any new national monuments; President Trump is threatening to be the first to rescind existing monuments.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent the summer observing the new monuments—including Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, which was expanded under President Obama and has drawn ire from local landowners and politicians. Zinke completed his review in late August but is keeping the findings close to his chest, revealing that “some changes” were in store, without making the report fully public (at press time). It is expected, however, that Bears Ears Monument will shrink in size—current estimates predict it will be reduced from 1.35 million acres to just 160,000—but that, according to Zinke, the government would “maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations.” The move is fiercely opposed by Native American communities, including the Navajo Nation and Hopi and Zuni reservations, which surround the monument.
For now, we wait to see the full extent of Zinke’s report. And while we do not know where the administration’s review of the Antiquities Act itself will head, the effort—when combined with unsuccessful motions to backtrack on Obama-era methane-emissions regulations, successful measures allowing for increased mining runoff into streams, and incentivizing programs for coal projects on federal lands—it is clear the president intends to tarnish the nation’s lands in concert with violating its institutions and norms.
In the same way that architects have led the way in saving architectural relics via support for historic preservation and the National Register of Historic Places—also administered by the Department of the Interior—we must become more vocal in our support for retaining and, in fact, expanding public access to public lands. The National Park System is currently languishing with a $12 billion backlog of repairs. Efforts like the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hands-On Preservation Experience (HOPE) Crew, which connects young people to preservation-related trades through on-the-ground work, is a positive first step, but more work and support are needed.
As with historic preservation, national monuments exist to perpetuate and preserve our most meaningful and compelling spaces and can, moving forward, even work to highlight forgotten or marginalized histories and cultures. Natural landscapes, like cultural landscapes and historic structures and neighborhoods, are vital to the architectural profession and the country alike.
The federal government should keep its hands off these lands, and architects would do well to fight publicly for their protection.
Theory vs. Practice
What happened to speculation in architecture?
Like everything, architectural history and theory have been radically realigned by the internet and digital culture. Now, ideas are passed through relatively unfiltered media, such as 140-character tweets that have turned writers’ attention from writing to spewing fragments of criticism that float off into the ether. Curation today is often merely a manic production of online content driven by clicks, which come from posting more (and more, and more) content. This makes young writers who are feeding this content beast truly starved for new things to write about. It is a dramatic shift from the days when magazines like Architectural Forum and Progressive Architecture were the curatorial gatekeepers that held the conversation at a high level.
The result is that bad ideas can come to be front and center in the architectural discussion very easily due to metrics and algorithms. What passes for “radical,” “idea,” “theory,” and “concept” today is becoming eroded as quickly as our political discourse.
For example, a recent headline on a popular architecture-oriented website proclaimed: “Designer Dror Benshetrit releases three conceptual proposals for residential skyscrapers in New York.” The article showed a series of towers as rudimentary as a student project before a first crit. While it makes business sense to do speculative projects on sites in New York that could attract luxury development, the media has a responsibility to question whether these are actually conceptual, or just a bad unbuilt project. What purpose these serve is unclear, although one claims it is a new, efficient structural system. As far as ideas go, this leaves much to be desired.
In a similar pointless exercise in mediocre conceptual architecture that looks good on the internet and keeps content producers busy, oiio—which also made a clever proposal to add onto the Guggenheim by extending its spiral upward—has proposed one of the least likely and most useless pieces of architectural speculation in history. According to the Huffington Post, this speculation was “The Big Bend, A U-Shaped Skyscraper, Could Become The Longest In The World.” But it almost certainly couldn’t. The conflation of possibility and wild speculation harms the media’s credibility and creates the architectural equivalent of fake news. And the project, essentially two 432 Parks that bend to meet at the top, isn’t even a compelling idea. It barely even qualifies as formalism, let alone conceptual architecture.
That would be the silliest architectural concept ever, except that an article on Forbes, “New York Architects Plan Enormous Skyscraper Hanging From An Asteroid In Space,” wins that prize. This bizarre fantasy is based on some actual scientific research, but when translated sloppily to architecture, it becomes simply childlike: Why would we want to “hang” a skyscraper from an asteroid, and why are we taking this proposal seriously? It would be hard to find something more useless for architectural discourse than the hanging-asteroid skyscraper.
Where are the relevant ideas in architecture? While taking the latest philosophy or digital technology and applying it to architecture is at least a stab in the right direction, what happened to innovative formal ideas, or cultural innovations in architectural form? Where are the radical ideas that might spark our imagination and make us think differently about the discipline and the world in which it exists?
Where are the good ideas, and how can we help to get them into the discussion?
September 17 Opening
What the Chicago Architecture Biennial's list of firms tells us about the upcoming biennial
With only one previous iteration, it seems impossible not to continuously compare the upcoming 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial to its predecessor. And that does not have to be a bad thing. During a panel discussion during the inaugural 2015 Biennial, British architect Sam Jacob was asked what the theme of next biennial should be. His response? In sum: Just do the exact same theme. That way, not only can we see the progress of the field over two years, but then we will also have two events that can be compared, apples to apples. His statement, though somewhat in jest, seems to have been, at least in part, prophetic.
With the recent announcement of the participants list, under the artistic direction of Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of Johnston Marklee, we have our first look at how similar the exhibition may be. And though the list of around 100 offices does include many new names, there are 22 repeats from 2015. There are other similarities between the lists. Neither 2015 nor 2017 include any significant contribution from corporate firms. In 2015 this was a sore point for many of the hundreds of local architects that work in the numerous mega-firms in Chicago. Many local architects admitted to not even having seen the show, despite it being free and only blocks from many of the largest offices in the city.
But this is why Jacob’s idea of repetition could end up being so brilliant. First, the biennial is not for the big corporate firms—even if it is being held in the city that is bursting with giants. Biennials are where the most avant-garde architectural discourse is presented. While contemporary large firms often lead the way in engineering and technological daring, they are rarely at the fore of architectural discussion. The nature of their business means that they cannot afford to be. Small, young practices on the other hand, with fewer mouths to feed and less money on the table, can’t afford not to be on the edge. For ambitious young firms, being experimental is the only way to set themselves apart in a world of architecture blogs and Instagram. For good or for bad.
One thing the large firms do well is exporting Chicago Architecture to the rest of the world. The biennial is a rare chance for the city, and the U.S. at large, to import some architecture. This factor should never be undervalued. The well-known story of Frank Lloyd Wright being influenced by the Japanese pavilion at the 1893 Columbian Exposition should be enough of a lesson. Chicago is already benefitting from this in the form of the Museum of Contemporary Arts’ upcoming renovation by two 2015 CAB participants, Johnston Marklee and Pedro&Juana.
Something can also be said about the quality of the practices being invited. The list, repeats and new firms alike, is filled with excellent firms. The names might not always be familiar or pulled from glossy magazine pages, but the last iteration is proof that these practices are thoughtful yet daring in their architecture. The United States, and Chicago in particular, have a problem with not supporting small and/or young practices. Biennials are a place where that can happen.
Another notable similarity is the presence of Johnston and Lee. They were responsible for an exhibit in the main show as well as a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Johnston was also on the jury for the 2015 Biennial’s Lakefront Kiosk Competition (a program that will not be continuing this year).
Only five months out from the September 17 opening, we still don’t know a ton about what the show will be all about. Yet through a close reading of the participant list, and the memory of the last show, we can make some educated guesses about its nature. The overlap of offices, the exclusion of corporate firms, and the main venue of the Chicago Cultural Center tell us the show will likely feel familiar. Yet, knowing the wide range of small, diverse offices, it is just as likely to be full of surprises and architectural ideas that Chicago has not seen.
A Modest Pot-posal
Marijuana reparations: A vehicle for housing reform in California?
The Architect's Newspaper's April 2017 issue takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). You can see all those articles on this page. Here, Senior Editor Matt Shaw's editorial from that issue highlights what we've explored in the Sunshine State.
Since The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) switched from four weekly regional editions to one single national monthly, we have worked tirelessly to maintain our in-depth regional coverage of architecture, even if it is packaged differently. But sometimes we miss the intense focus on one region for one issue. That is why for our AIA special issue, which coincides with the AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando, Florida, we decided to make a Florida regional issue, in the spirit of our old East, Midwest, West, and Southwest editions. We could call it Southeast, but there is so much building and development going on in Florida that we wanted to give it the classic AN treatment by itself.
What exactly is happening there?
Most of the high-profile development is in Miami, where The Four Seasons stands as the tallest building in the city at 789 feet, but will soon be surpassed by the 830-foot-tall Panorama Tower, and soon after that both will likely be passed by a wave of supertalls that are in the planning process. There are nearly a dozen proposals in various states of planning, including World Trade Center of the Americas, The Towers by Foster + Partners, KPF’s One Bayfront Plaza, and Skyrise Miami, a.k.a. “The Eiffel Tower of the Magic City.” The FAA has never approved a building over 1,049 feet, so that is the designated height of many, including the latter three listed above.
This boom shows that while the condo market in South Florida may actually be cooling off, the cities are not. In our feature, we profile Miami from several angles, showing a complex metropolis layered with architecture and design activity. The latest wave of development has brought with it a new civic-mindedness to a city that is struggling to escape its car-centric culture and is slowly growing to offer more urbane experiences through infrastructure, density, and advances in technology. The re-urbanization of Miami parallels many other places, but it has its own characteristic development patterns.
The paradox of building directly in the face of sea-level rise may seem daunting, especially as the governor of Florida continues to deny climate change and forbids government employees from using the term. Luckily, there is hope: A sub-state organization of counties and municipalities are taking the lead without state help. Since 2009, the counties of Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach have led the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. Other partners include the Institute for Sustainable Communities, South Florida Water Management District, The Nature Conservancy – Florida Chapter, and the Florida Climate Institute. Along with a collection of cities and towns, they have been working together—and meeting annually—to coordinate mitigation and adaptation activities across county lines, as well as address funding and policy issues.
In Miami, there is also work being done to combat the social issues of sea-level rise threatening the city, as there is real concern that up to 50 percent of the land will not be habitable in the coming decades. What will happen if this is true? Not only would real estate become unusable, but higher ground that is now affordable could become unaffordable for those who live there, if that territory becomes more desirable to those displaced along the shore. To offset that, many are looking to Philadelphia’s anti-gentrification “Development Without Displacement” methods such as the tax exemptions in the Longtime Owner-Occupant Program (LOOP), and other alternative ownership incentives and models, and applying them to a GIS-based plan for the city.
These contradictory forces—the ocean and the city—may pose a threat to Miami if no action is taken, but they are also what makes it so desirable. The landscape and the resultant tourism industry—hotels, malls, resorts, beaches, nightlife—fuels a tropical paradise with urban, suburban, and rural issues as compelling and complex as anywhere.
Because we cover Florida regularly, we have some past coverage that might interest those who enjoy this issue. Click here for a list of past articles.
Special thanks to landscape architect Walter Meyer of Local Office Landscape Architecture whose help was indispensable for this issue.
Can the Municipal Art Society save itself?
The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) has a proud history but today is a broken organization. It was founded in 1893 to modernize and professionalize city government, and in the 20th century it led the charge for better planning and historic preservation in the city. In the society’s “glory days” of the 1960s and 70s it helped save Grand Central Terminal, Radio City Music Hall, and the Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village. It also helped win passage of the city’s landmark law. But its own website stops listing its achievements or milestones in 2012 with the convening of a planning group studying East Midtown. Since that time, the organization has sputtered to remain relevant, making controversial decisions and reinventing itself in a changing city. In a 2015 editorial, we wrote, “What was once one of the fiercest and most devoted New York City organizations that would litigate when it thought the best interests of the city were threatened, has now become a defanged real estate and developer-led organization that serves as a cheerleader for major development.”
In retrospect, the beginning of this period of uncertainty started when it moved out of the Urban Center in the Madison Avenue Villard Houses and received a multi-million dollar settlement for leaving before its lease expired. It then moved into the Steinway building on 57th Street until it was paid again to leave that building early and received yet another financial settlement. While any nonprofit would be thrilled to receive huge financial gifts like this, the MAS board relied too heavily on these on windfalls and did not continue to raise the money needed to keep the organization strong. Then, in 2014, it moved into another larger (but much needed) space in the Look Building on Madison Avenue, where the rent is a reported $600,000 a year. The board, while it has had several generous members, stopped raising the funds needed to keep the organization healthy and robust. Furthermore, it did not continue to develop a board of directors with the appropriate mix of well-connected advocates and wealthy contributors.
But financial issues are not the only problem for the MAS and its board of directors. Over the last month, we have been reporting on the board’s decision to fire its third director—President Gina Pollara—and hire yet another leader: Elizabeth Goldstein from the California State Parks Foundation. We reported on an open letter from the City Club, another civic organization (with many former MAS leaders in its leadership) that asked the board to “to defer any action with regard to President Gina Pollara,” because, it continued, to “move forward with this action would be an unhappy step backward and a display of internal governance disarray at MAS.” But the letter also asked the MAS board to “consider an independent review of governance and management structure accepting one of the following alternatives to pursue: appointment of a balanced committee of emeritus directors; retention of an outside professional consultant (such as McKinsey); or consultation with an experienced non-profit organization professional.” We agree with the City Club that it is time for the MAS board of directors to be more transparent about its actions, change how it views its fiduciary responsibilities, and rethink its board structure and decision-making process.
Finally, the MAS board has not only mismanaged its mandate to stand up for New York but should explain its management of the Gina Pollara presidency.
According to sources, Pollara asked the board when she began her term to give her a year to re-engage with the community that they depended on for funding and memberships. In the year of her presidency, she reportedly brought in nearly $1 million to the society. Pollara seemed be on track to making this happen after she canceled “The MAS Summit,” its largely irrelevant two-day non-event of tweets and advertorials for MAS board members and their friends. Instead, Pollara created a successful (and less expensive to convene) one-day summit that engaged with and discussed important and controversial issues in New York in 2016. The board has been mysterious about why it fired Pollara, and while it doesn’t have to explain all of its decisions, hiring yet another president makes one wonder if the members are serious about continuing to be a civic organization worthy of respect—and financial support. We hope Goldstein can make the society respected and relevant again, but she has serious bridges to build in the New York preservation and planning communities. And she has to have the ability to work with its board.
Retrofit for the Future
The American suburbs are the next fertile ground for architectural and urban experimentation
The last twenty-odd years may have seen the remarkable comeback of cities, but the next twenty might actually be more about the suburbs, as many cities have become victims of their own success. The housing crisis—a product of a complex range of factors from underbuilding to downzoning—has made some cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, a playground for the ultra-wealthy, pushing out long-time residents and making the city unaffordable for the artists, creatives, and small businesses who make vibrant places.
While it is impossible to cast a national generalization, in a broad sense, the cities’ loss could be the suburbs’ gain. Many young people and poorer residents are moving to the suburbs, although not necessarily because they want to. This is creating a market on the fringes of the city for a more vibrant mixed-use development based on public transportation and urban amenities. The traditional American suburban model of sprawling single-family homes and clusters of retail is not necessarily the only way these territories are developing, as even the big box mall models are taking new forms.
In some ways, the urban and the suburban are flattening, as Judith K. De Jong argues in her book New SubUrbanisms. Culturally, formally, and conceptually, they share more than we typically think. While suburban residents crave quasi-ersatz urban experiences, many in the urban areas are living as if they are in the suburbs, in more insular developments that minimize their interactions with the city and other citizens. In the suburbs, on the other hand, there is potential for an increase in mixed-use and mixed-experience living.
Adding to this new “intersectional suburb,” which we consider in our feature, are the demographic shifts that are continuing to upend the notion of classic post-war suburbs. We examine how a recent report by the Urban Land Institute surveys the new landscape on which the formation of new suburban projects will take place. A recent study by urban planner Daniel D’oca and his students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design even called this phenomenon “black flight.”
What makes these changes so loaded with potential to provoke new types of suburban development and living is that the suburbs already cover an enormous amount of land in the U.S. University of Michigan professor of landscape architecture Joan Nassauer cites Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007, a 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service study that shows that 3 percent of all land in the U.S. is covered by “cities,” while upward of 5 percent is taken up by suburbs.
This means that while there are new tracts of land being built, much of this experimentation will be transforming what is already there, but with new technologies and understanding of what a healthy urbanism looks like environmentally, culturally, and economically. It is an incredibly fertile ground for architecture and urban design to imagine how to retrofit the suburbs and make them part of the next generation of cities.
When discussing his vision for the future of cities, Vishaan Chakrabarti cites Paul Baran’s 1962 diagram “Centralized, Decentralized, and Distributed Networks,” which argues that a distributed, rhizomatic network of nodes and connections is the most resilient way to organize a system. If the affordability crisis in urban areas drives more people out of city centers, then maybe mixed-use centers could be located all around a periphery, creating new conditions that are very well suited for the new technologies and environmental challenges that face the suburbs.
As the suburbs adapt to technologies—such as self-driving cars and solar power—to update their inefficient and problematic infrastructures, they will have new opportunities to address new transit options that connect them to the rest of the urban landscape. They will also be fertile ground for more industrial and commercial uses.
These changes in the suburban landscape can only be fruitful for architects and urbanists if they allow themselves to see the suburbs not as a “deplorable,” ecologically destitute place, but rather as a design challenge that offers a culturally rich and diverse set of problems that can help a variety of families in varying socio-economic conditions. Once we shed our preconceptions, we can start to analyze them on the terms that have already been set, and we can start to remake the suburbs in the image of a progressive, 21st century city.
Aye Aye AIA
AIA makes major misstep on Donald Trump
In the weeks since the presidential election, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has drawn ire from architectural professionals for releasing a post-election memo containing conciliatory and supportive language for President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to embark on a $500 billion infrastructure building program.
Robert Ivy, AIA executive vice president and CEO, released a statement on behalf of the national AIA apparatus and membership, saying in part, “The AIA and its 89,000 members are committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces, particularly strengthening the nation’s aging infrastructure. The memo continued, “We stand ready to work with him and with the incoming 115th Congress to ensure that investments in schools, hospitals, and other public infrastructure continue to be a major priority.”
In response, The Architect’s Newspaper issued a rebuttal challenging Ivy’s magical thinking relating to the scarcely-detailed, so-called infrastructure plan put forth by the President-elect and the fundamental lack of leadership inherent in pledging blind support to a political movement expressly aligned with xenophobic, racist, misogynistic, and climate change-denying ideals.
We wrote: “It is anathema to this editorial board to fathom the positive impact of such a work of infrastructure as the proposed border wall or its attendant detention centers, federal and private prisons, and militarized infrastructure that would be necessary in order to achieve the President-elect’s stated deportation policy goals. To ignore the role design and designers could play in instituting and perpetuating the inequality inherent in the racist patriarchy of Trump’s ideology embodies is irresponsible and reprehensible.”
AN’s response was buttressed by supporting statements from dozens of architects, designers, and academics from across the field. As a consequence, Ivy issued an apology directly to AN saying, “The AIA remains firmly committed to advocating for the values and principles that will create a more sustainable, inclusive, and humane world. The spirit and intention behind our statement is consistent with and in support of President Obama’s eloquent call for us all to unite for the best interest of America’s future.”
The statement did little to quell fury in the architectural community, with members openly calling for Ivy’s resignation and at least one AIA member, Fritz Reed of Baltimore, resigning in protest. After members continued to express disapproval at AIA leadership, Ivy and AIA National President Russ Davidson issued an additional apology via video pledging to engage in listening sessions with AIA membership to better articulate a future vision for the organization and the profession. Moving forward, as Ivy and AIA leaders begin to plan these listening sessions, AN reiterates its initial pledge to stand in solidarity with AIA members and those who advocate for an inclusive, diverse, and morally responsible profession aiming to address climate change, promote equitable urbanism, and fight for design quality in the built environment.
AN will continue to listen to the architectural and design community and help articulate ways for the profession to move forward in support of the goals stated above and help lead the resistance to forces that aim to undermine the pursuit of those values.