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In most major cities of the world, an urban tech landscape has emerged. One day, we were working on our laptops at Starbucks, and the next, we were renting desks at WeWork. We embedded our small architectural and design firms in low-rent spaces in old factories and warehouses, and then we emerged as “TAMI” (technology, advertising, media, and information) tenants, heating up the commercial real estate market. Friends who could write computer code started businesses in their apartments before moving into tech incubators and accelerators, which then morphed into a “startup ecosystem.” Though a competitive city in the 1990s might only have had one cutely named cluster of startups—New York’s Silicon Alley, San Francisco’s Media Gulch—by the 2010s, many cities were building “innovation districts.” How did this happen? And what does it mean for these cities’ futures?
The simplest explanation is that cities are catching up to the digital economy. If computers and the web are one of the primary means of production for the 21st century, all cities need the infrastructure—broadband, connectivity, flexible office space—to support them. Companies that control the means of production also need raw material—the data that newly “smart” cities can provide—to develop concepts, test prototypes, and market their wares. Local governments and business leaders have always reshaped cities around the businesses that profit from new technology; In the 19th century, they built railroad stations, dug subway tunnels, and laid sewage pipes; in the 20th century, they wired for electricity and erected office towers. Maybe we should ask why it has taken cities so long to rebuild for digital technology.
Inertia is one answer, and money is another. Entrenched elites don’t readily change course, especially if a new economy would challenge their influence on local politics and labor markets. Think about the long dominance of the auto industry in Detroit and the financial industry in New York, both late converts to digital technologies like self-driving cars and electronic banking, respectively.
Another reason for cities’ slow awakening to the tech economy is the post–World War II prominence of suburban office parks and research centers, part of the mass suburbanization of American society. On the East Coast, tech talent began to migrate from cities in the early 1940s, when Bell Labs, the 20th-century engineering powerhouse, moved from Lower Manhattan to a large tract of land in suburban New Jersey. A few years later, on the West Coast, Stanford University and the technology company Varian Associates spearheaded the construction of an electronics research park on a university-owned site of orange groves that later became known as Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley got the lion’s share of postwar federal government grants and contracts from the military for microwave electronics innovation, missile research, and satellite communications. Venture capital (VC) soon followed. Although VC firms began in New York and Boston, by the 1960s and ’70s they were setting up shop in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Valley’s hegemony was solidified in the 1980s by the rise of the personal computer industry and the VCs who got rich by investing in it. The suburban tech landscape so artfully represented in popular mythology by Silicon Valley’s DIY garages and in physical reality by its expansive corporate campuses was both pragmatically persuasive and culturally pervasive. Its success rested on a triple helix of government, business, and university partnerships, defining an era from Fairchild, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard (the first wave of major digital technology companies) to Apple, Google, and Facebook.
In contrast to the suburban postwar growth of Silicon Valley, the urban tech landscape was propelled by the rise of software in the early 2000s and gained ground after the economic crisis of 2008. Software was easier and cheaper to develop than computers and silicon chips—it wasn’t tied to equipment or talent in big research universities. It was made for consumers. Most important, with the development of the iPhone and the subsequent explosion of social media platforms after 2007, software increasingly took the form of apps for mobile devices. This meant that software startups could be scaled, a crucial point for venture capital. For cities, however, the critical point was that anyone, anywhere, could be both an innovator and an entrepreneur.
The 2008 economic crisis plunged cities into a cascade of problems. Subprime mortgages cratered, leaving severely leveraged households and financial institutions adrift. Banks failed if they didn’t get United States government lifelines. Financial jobs at all levels disappeared; local tax revenues plummeted. While mayors understood that they had to end their dependence on the financial sector—a realization most keenly felt in New York—they also faced long-term shrinkage in manufacturing sectors and office vacancies.
London had already tried to counter deindustrialization with the Docklands solution: Waterfront land was redeveloped for new media and finance, and unused piers and warehouses were converted for cultural activities. In Spain, this strategy was taken further in the 1990s by the construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum and the clearing of old industrial plants from that city’s waterfront. By the early 2000s, Barcelona’s city government was building both a new cultural district and an “innovation district” for digital media, efforts that bore a striking resemblance to the 1990s market-led development of the new media district in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley and the growth of tech and creative offices in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood.
Until the economic crisis hit, both spontaneous and planned types of urban redevelopment were connected to the popular “creative city” model promoted by Charles Landry in London and Richard Florida in Pittsburgh (later, Toronto). In 2009, however, economic development officials wanted a model that could create more jobs. They seized on the trope of “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” that had been circulating around business schools since the 1980s, channeling the spirit of the economic historian Joseph Schumpeter and popularized in a best-selling book by that title by the management guru Peter Drucker. Adopted by researchers at the Brookings Institution, urban innovation districts would use public-private partnerships to create strategic concentrations of workspaces for digital industries. It seemed like a brilliant masterstroke to simultaneously address three crucial issues that kept mayors awake at night: investments, jobs, and unused, low-value buildings, and land.
In the absence of federal government funding, real estate developers would have to be creative. They built new projects with money from the city and state governments, the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program for foreign investors, and urban impact funding that flowed through investment banks like Goldman Sachs. Federal tax credits for renovating historic buildings and investing in high-poverty areas were important.
Though all major cities moved toward an “innovation economy” after 2009, New York’s 180-degree turn from finance to tech was the most dramatic. The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and 2001, followed by the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and an economic recession, initially kept the city from endorsing the uncertainty of tech again. Michael Bloomberg, mayor from 2001 to 2013, was a billionaire whose personal fortune and namesake company came from a fusion of finance and tech, most notably the Bloomberg terminal, a specially configured computer that brings real-time data to stock brokers’ and analysts’ desks. Yet, as late as 2007, Mayor Bloomberg, joined by New York’s senior senator Chuck Schumer, promoted New York as the self-styled financial capital of the world, a city that would surely triumph over its only serious rival, London. The 2008 financial crisis crumpled this narrative and turned the Bloomberg administration toward tech.
By 2009, the city’s business elites believed that New York’s salvation depended on producing more software engineers. This consensus motivated the mayor and his economic development officials to build big, organizing a global competition for a university that could create a dynamic, postgraduate engineering campus in New York. Cornell Tech emerged as the winner, a partnership between Cornell University and the Israel Institute of Technology. Between 2014 and 2017, the new school recruited high-profile professors with experience in government research programs, university classrooms, and corporate labs. They created a slew of partnerships with the city’s major tech companies, and the resulting corporate-academic campus made Roosevelt Island New York’s only greenfield innovation district. Not coincidentally, the founding dean was elected to Amazon’s board of directors in 2016.
The Bloomberg administration also partnered with the city’s public and private universities, mainly the aggressively expanding New York University (NYU), to open incubators and accelerators for tech startups. After NYU merged with Polytechnic University, a historic engineering school in downtown Brooklyn, the Bloomberg administration made sure the new engineering school could lease the vacant former headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority nearby, where NYU’s gut renovation created a giant tech center.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn waterfront was booming. The Brooklyn Navy Yard added advanced manufacturing tenants and art studios to its traditional mix of woodworking and metalworking shops, food processors, and suppliers of electronics parts, construction material, and office equipment, and began to both retrofit old machine shops for “green” manufacturing and build new office space. While tech and creative offices were running out of space in DUMBO, the heads of the downtown Brooklyn and DUMBO business improvement districts came up with the idea of marketing the whole area, with the Navy Yard, as “the Brooklyn Tech Triangle.” With rezoning, media buzz, and a strategic design plan, what began as a ploy to fill vacant downtown office buildings moved toward reality.
Established tech companies from Silicon Valley and elsewhere also inserted themselves into the urban landscape. Google opened a New York office for marketing and advertising in 2003 but expanded its engineering staff a few years later, buying first one, then two big buildings in Chelsea: an old Nabisco bakery and the massive former headquarters of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Facebook took AOL’s old offices in Greenwich Village. On the next block, IBM Watson occupied a new office building designed by Fumihiko Maki.
Jared Kushner’s brother, the tech investor Jonathan Kushner, joined two other developers to buy the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ former headquarters and printing plant on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The developers converted the buildings into tech and creative offices and called the little district Dumbo Heights. By 2015, the growth of both venture capital investments and startups made New York the second-largest “startup ecosystem” in the world after Silicon Valley. Within the next three years, WeWork (now the We Company) surpassed Chase Bank branches as Manhattan’s largest commercial tenant.
All this development was both crystallized and crucified by Amazon’s decision to open half of a “second” North American headquarters (HQ2) in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, New York, in 2018. Amazon organized a competition similar to the Bloomberg contest that resulted in Cornell Tech, but in this case, the contest was a bidding war between 238 cities that offered tax credits, help with land assemblage, and zoning dispensations in return for 50,000 tech jobs that the company promised to create. But in announcing its selection, Amazon divided the new headquarters in two, supposedly placing half the jobs in New York and the other half in Crystal City, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Many New Yorkers erupted in protest rather than celebration.
The amount of tax credits offered to the very highly valued tech titan, almost $3 billion in total, appeared to rob the city of funding for its drastic needs: fixing the antiquated subway system, repairing the aging public housing stock, and building affordable housing. The decision-making process, tightly controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, enraged New York City Council members, none of whom had been given a role in either negotiating or modifying the deal. The deal itself was closely supervised by New York State’s Economic Development Corporation behind closed doors, without any provision for public input or approval.
Housing prices in Long Island City rose as soon as the deal was announced. A city economic development representative admitted that perhaps half of the jobs at HQ2 would not be high-paying tech jobs, but in human resources and support services. In a final, painful blow, Amazon promised to create only 30 jobs for nearly 7,000 residents of Queensbridge Houses, the nearby public housing project that is the largest in the nation.
Amazon representatives fanned their opponents’ fury at public hearings held by the New York City Council. They said the company would not remain neutral if employees wanted to unionize, and they refused to offer to renegotiate any part of the deal. Opponents also protested the company’s other business practices, especially the sale of facial recognition technology to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Yet surveys showed that most registered New York City voters supported the Amazon deal, with an even higher percentage of supporters among Blacks and Latinos. Reflecting the prospect of job opportunities, construction workers championed the deal while retail workers opposed it. The governor and mayor defended the subsidies as an investment in jobs. Not coincidentally, Amazon planned to rent one million square feet of vacant space in One Court Square, the former Citigroup Building in Long Island City, before building a new campus on the waterfront that would be connected by ferry to Cornell Tech.
After two months of relentless, vocal criticism, in a mounting wave of national resentment against Big Tech, Amazon withdrew from the deal. Elected officials blamed each other, as well as a misinformed, misguided public for losing the economic development opportunity of a lifetime.
Yet it wasn’t clear that landing a tech titan like Amazon would spread benefits broadly in New York City. A big tech company could suck talent and capital from the local ecosystem, deny homegrown startups room to expand, and employ only a small number of “natives.”
From San Francisco to Seattle to New York, complaints about tech companies’ effect on cities center on privatization and gentrification. In San Francisco, private buses ferry highly paid Google workers from their homes in the city to the company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, green space and cafes in the Mid-Market neighborhood proliferate to serve Twitter employees and other members of the technorati, low-income Latinos from the Mission district are displaced by astronomical rents—all of these factors stir resentment about Big Tech taking over. In Seattle, Amazon’s pressure on the city council to rescind a tax on big businesses to help pay for homeless shelters also aroused critics’ ire. Until recently, moreover, tech titans have been unwilling to support affordable housing in the very markets their high incomes roil: East Palo Alto and Menlo Park in California, and Redmond, Washington.
It remains to be seen whether urban innovation districts will all be viable, and whether they will spread wealth or instead create highly localized, unsustainable bubbles. Venture capital is already concentrated in a small number of cities and in a very few ZIP codes within these cities. According to the MIT economist David Autor, although the best “work of the future” is expanding, it is concentrated in only a few superstar cities and only represents 5 percent of all U.S. jobs.
Yet urban tech landscapes emerge from a powerful triple helix reminiscent of Silicon Valley. Elected officials promise jobs, venture capitalists and big companies make investments, and real estate developers get paid. Though these landscapes glitter brightly compared to the dead spaces they replace, they don’t offer broad participation in planning change or the equitable sharing of rewards.
Sharon Zukin is a Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College, and is author of the forthcoming book The Innovation Complex: Cities, Tech, and the New Economy.
In Jackson, Mississippi, architects are taking on a citywide hunger problem
By more than one measure, Jackson, Mississippi, is one of the nation’s unhealthiest cities. In 2017, it was named the fattest city in America based on 17 indicators, including obesity rates, levels of physically active adults, and access to fresh produce. In fact, nearly one-fifth of city residents are considered food insecure. The state of Mississippi does not fare much better—for the last eight years, it was reported as the most food insecure state in the country, even though agriculture is the state’s top industry.
It’s not just that Jackson has only 17 grocery stores for a population of nearly 170,000—that’s one per nearly 10,000 people. But the food that is available is disproportionately tipped toward fast food and gas station items. As one scholar of Jackson’s food culture told the Clarion Ledger, “Hunger happens in between bags of chips.”
All of this is compounded by the city’s lack of viable public transit options. Jackson is designed around the car, but many residents, whose wallets are already stretched thin on federal food assistance dollars, don’t own one. Even those with groceries or farmers’ markets in walking distance are discouraged by the lack of sidewalks or crosswalks. These conditions are undergirded by decades of generational poverty and disinvestment due to white flight, unfavorable tax policies, and the state’s aggressive efforts to cut resources for Medicaid and limit food stamps.
But Jackson also has a long history of civil rights activism, and its residents in 2013 and again in 2017 elected mayors who promised nothing less than wholesale social and economic transformation. For Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, addressing Jackson’s food access challenge is part of his promise to make it “the most radical city in the world.” But rather than enlisting conventional strategies, the city has mobilized its long-range planning division to lead a new design-based initiative. Bolstered by a $1 million public art grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, “Fertile Ground: Inspiring Dialogue about Food Access” brings together architects and artists alongside chefs, gardeners, food policy experts, and local institutions to facilitate a year of community-engaged interventions at three sites in the city. The project will culminate in a citywide exhibition in the spring of 2020, but ultimately it aims to establish a nonprofit research lab on food access that will operate on a permanent basis to sustain the momentum that is created.
The city invited an intriguing roster of architects and designers from around the country to participate in the multidisciplinary initiative: Kathy Velikov and Geoffrey Thün, directors of RVTR; Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges of Akoaki; Walter Hood of Hood Design Studio, and Jonathan Tate, who runs his namesake practice, Office of Jonathan Tate. Architects are central to the project, said Travis Crabtree, a senior urban planner with the city and one of the project’s coordinators. “When we first got the grant, people asked, Why are we spending $1 million dollars on an art project when we could feed people for a million?” he said.
Looking more closely at what these designers bring to the table may illustrate what can be gained from this approach. The question of access is at the heart of practices like the Toronto and Ann Arbor, Michigan–based RVTR, led by Velikov and Thün, who are both associate professors at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. In their ongoing project, Protean Prototypes, they conceive of public transit systems as platforms to address access to mobility, food, education, and health. They do this by mapping the social and spatial opportunities for access, connecting underserved areas with local actors who can bridge access gaps and by proposing lightweight spatial prototypes that overlay onto public transit infrastructure, such as bus stops and metro stations. The prototypes might include emerging tech like mobile produce vending systems and bike-cart shares alongside other programs with a small footprint like exercise equipment and book lending programs. Applying this method to Chicago, San Francisco, and Detroit, this complex systems approach brings together architectural and urban scale in new assemblages that amplify the resources already on the ground and take advantage of the larger urban context to channel them where they are needed most.
In Jackson, Velikov and Thün will focus their efforts at the Ecoshed, a 15,000-square-foot, open-air building on a 2-acre industrial site that borders two very different neighborhoods—the rapidly gentrifying Fondren and Virden Addition, one of the poorest in the city. For Fertile Ground, the Ecoshed will demonstrate a self-sustaining closed-loop food system and host the food lab, and eventually host the Fertile Ground nonprofit.Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges of Detroit-based Akoaki will also focus their efforts at the Ecoshed. Their practice has engaged with the problem of food access through four years of work with an urban farm in Detroit, the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. Sirota is also an associate professor of architecture at Taubman. Detroit provides a uniquely fertile landscape for thinking about urban food access. According to Sirota, Detroit has 1,300 urban farms, but none of them are sustainable. At the 6-acre Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, sustainability for Sirota and Farges has meant strategizing beyond economics alone. To them, urban farms are hubs for urban regeneration, and they realized that multiple layers of activity and programming were needed to realize that potential. Like Velikov and Thün, they see architecture as a way of “amplifying the activity that’s already happening on the ground, to stitch together new and productive alliances.”
Detroit may be 1,000 miles from Jackson, but the connection between the two cities runs deep. Like Jackson, Detroit is a majority African American city, with many residents who have ties to Mississippi and other southern states. Thus, the Oakland Avenue farm grows many heritage products from Mississippi. Likewise, the association to agriculture is similarly fraught in both cities; as Sirota noted, “We are highly attuned to the idea that going back to the land isn’t necessarily representationally positive to everyone.” Rather than framing urban farming as a return to an idyllic past (and glossing over the history of slavery and policies that led to the dispossession or denial of land to freed slaves), Akoaki’s urban farm work is firmly sited in the urban. “We’ve become astutely aware that the neo-rural is not rural; it’s something that deserves an aesthetic that hybridizes all the aspirations of the city and combines them with the necessity to produce picturesque landscape and food.” Thus the practice’s design of pop-up performance spaces next to the farm’s kale fields for the Detroit African Funkestra is based on the colors and shapes of shuttered music venues across Detroit.
Another participating architect, Oakland-based landscape architect Walter Hood, has extensive experience designing cultural and urban landscapes. Hood, who is also a professor at University of California, Berkeley's will focus his efforts at Galloway Elementary in Jackson. The 4.3-acre, publicly owned lot is currently a playfield for a local elementary school. According to the city’s planning department, this site is located in a lower-income residential neighborhood with little public space and bordered by a major street dominated by fast food establishments. The theme here will be on food and community.
This is a good fit for Hood. His projects in Charleston, South Carolina; Macon, Georgia; Detroit, and Philadelphia, among other cities, demonstrate a steady thread of incorporating community feedback, local culture, and collective memory into landscape and urban design. In his Water Table installation at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, Hood tapped into the ecology and history of rice production by mounting thousands of Carolina Gold rice plants in circular planters on a platform in a school courtyard, essentially recreating a rice paddy in downtown Charleston. The project resurfaced the link between rice production and the history of the slave labor that made Carolina’s rice industry possible. Afterwards, the project was dissembled and distributed, planter by planter, across schools and institutions in the area, and lived on to continue the conversation. This archaeological approach also surfaces in many other projects by Hood Studio, including its master plan for Detroit’s Rosa Parks neighborhood. Hood's work has long engaged with the idea of “being a protagonist in design," and, in reflecting on the future work in Jackson, asked, “How do we make a landscape powerful, so that once you do it, it has a resonance?”
Finally, at Congress Street, the third Fertile Ground site, New Orleans–based architect Jonathan Tate will bring his experience with food culture and exhibition design to a downtown storefront space. The Congress Street site is close to the heart of government and is intended to amplify the project to public officials and policymakers who work nearby.
For Tate, who designed the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, the task includes not only the adaptive reuse of an existing building but also the design of an outdoor parklet that invites the public in through greenscape and seating. The challenge will be to bring it all together—the art, the history, the contributions of numerous partners, and of course, engage critical feedback, in a downtown that goes quiet at 5 p.m. on weekdays. "Instead of a veneer you're walking through, it's about bringing the space of the building out into the street," he explained.
The architects, along with other Fertile Ground team members, began site visits in April, and will develop their proposals until the citywide expo in 2020.
Continuing their influential body of work examining the city from fresh angles and novel frameworks, Atelier Bow-Wow’s Momoyo Kaijima and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto will cocurate Made In Tokyo: Architecture and Living 1964–2020 at New York’s Japan Society. The show, scheduled to open in October, will examine Tokyo in the period between the 1964 and the 2020 Olympics, both of which were hosted in the Japanese capital and marked shifts caused by enormous infrastructural investment. Made In Tokyo, a close examination of the flows of everyday life and urban institutions, will feature models, drawings, and photographs of a collection of architecture and art that developed around the city in this period of extraordinary change. AN executive editor Matt Shaw exchanged emails with the iconic duo as they prepare the exciting exhibition.
The Architect’s Newspaper: What can we expect from this show? How does it relate to your book projects, particularly Made in Tokyo, which shares a name with the exhibition?
Atelier Bow-Wow: What you can see from this exhibition is the Tokyo of the two Olympics, seen through the evolution of various urban institutions. Our book, Made in Tokyo (2001), showed the life of this unique city through the observation of “hybrid” metropolitan structures. By applying this lens to the urban institutions that were being created in 1964 and 2020, the years of the two Tokyo Olympics, we will showcase the change, or metabolism, of the life of Tokyo.
How did you sort through almost 60 years of architecture and development of the largest metropolis in the world? What were you looking for as you made your framework?
The urban architecture that was built between the last Tokyo Olympics and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics can be categorized in two ways: architecture that supports the everyday life of Tokyo (transit stations, city halls, offices, houses, etc.) and architecture that supports the nonroutine life (capsule hotels, stadiums, department stores, etc.). Comparing these two kinds of architecture and observing how the environments, conditions, and social expectations for each type has changed will reveal how life in Tokyo has transformed.
What are the major transitions you identify? What built works illustrate them?
Size. The size of the Olympics, the size of cities, the size of economic impact, the technical environment—namely, the internet—how families should live, the way of working, commercial services, demographics of cities, etc., have all changed drastically.
Were there surprises that you came across as you surveyed the city and its history? What assumptions about Tokyo might be upended?
We are the generation of the previous Tokyo Olympics and cannot hide how surprised we are at the tremendous turnover of city spaces from what we remember in our childhood memories. Since the government handed over the reins of urban creation to the private sector, the logic of capital and industry has entered into every corner of the city and started determining the shapes of life and urban spaces. Although it is widely said that the 70-year period of peace in Tokyo—without war or huge earthquakes—has contributed to cultivating a city that values quality over quantity, I think in reality it is livelihood that is servicing capital and industry.
From the outside, 1964–2020 in Japan seems to be a very positive and optimistic period of growth. Is that true?
Since World War II, we had grown in both population and economically until around 1990. Various urban institutions were created with great productivity and enthusiasm. Especially in the 1960s—15 years after the end of the war—young architects were allowed to creatively contribute to diverse architectural designs. Now, in contrast to those times, the institutions that were built in the 20th century are showing their age and need to be renovated. In high-value areas in central Tokyo, there is an incentive for large capital and organizations to move toward mass redevelopment that increases the total floor space, thus covering operating costs. On the other hand, buildings in the other areas are left to the tides of time and tend to be unoccupied and deteriorating. These buildings are often revitalized by young architects and activities rooted in their neighborhoods. In short, bipolarization is happening, and we cannot be positive about the situation.
Now we are moving to the idea of “revival” and localism of the countryside rather than Tokyo’s centralism. Tokyo has been established on the support of the rural areas, but the fact has become more apparent and Tokyo is getting situated as one of the cities in the network of lives.
You include several avant-garde artworks, including some performance pieces, that are critical of Japanese economic development and consumerism. How do those fit into your narrative? Why did you include them?
They show what “ambiences” are surrounding architecture in each era. Along with focusing on urban institutions, we would also like visitors to imagine the backgrounds and conditions that surround the institutions.
(These responses were translated from Japanese into English.)
Before the Deluge
AIANY misses the mark with its photography show of Syrian architecture
Your Glass is Grass
De Blasio cracks down on glass towers as part of Green New Deal
Architectural Atrocity Tourism
The Cursed Architecture Twitter feed showcases the best of the worst
a seat at the table, allowing anyone to weigh in. It’s also possible that when faced with overwhelmingly terrible design that fails at a basic level, everyone can put aside their quibbles and unite to make fun of it, together.
i'm on the way to america and i spent the night inside the most nightmarish and oppressive bit of architecture i've seen in a long while pic.twitter.com/IRlZh49h3R— dom (@zerstoerer) March 15, 2019
Green Deal With It
NYC Council passes sweeping building emission legislation
Why Arata Isozaki deserves the Pritzker
The Pritzker is about lifetime achievement, so let’s start at the beginning. Isozaki began his career studying architecture after a childhood in which he witnessed profound destruction. “[During WWII] I was constantly confronted with the destruction and elimination of the physical objects that surrounded me. Japanese cities went up in flames. Forms that had been there an instant earlier vanished in the next.”
This darkness pervaded his work, especially the concept of impermanence and ruins. In his early career, he was involved with the Japanese theoretical group, the Metabolists, who were taking on the city as a large-scale biological process, producing some of the most visionary proposals of the post-war era. However, Isozaki believed that they were too naïve and positive, and that architecture needed to (paradoxically) build for death and destruction as well as life and progress. Isozaki became more aligned with what would come to be known as postmodernism in the Venturian or Jencksian sense when he broke from both hardcore modernists like the CIAM and the Metabolists. For Isozaki, the city was not a place of activism or functionalism, but rather a place of memory and poetic imagination.
He took the Metabolists’ love for viewing the built environment as a living organism and imbued their rational, hardcore functionalism with a more artistic, human-scale, colorful approach. His Oita Prefecture Library and the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art both took on the Brutalist concrete aesthetic, but treated the building as a body with connected parts, rather than an aggregation of cells or individual units as in Metabolism. In both the library and art museum, views are framed by cantilevered “eyes.”
In addition to his bodily references in buildings, Isozaki was an early protagonist of experiments in the relationship between architecture and performance art. His Demonstration Robot, part of the extravagant Metabolist Osaka ’70 expo, made an architectural-scale human that could host events on a stage while reconfiguring itself on an even larger stage. These performance architectures incorporated principles of the nascent performance art movement of the 1970s and foreshadowed projects like OMA’s Transformer or the work of Andres Jaque or Diller Scofidio + Renfro. However, soon after the expo, he fell physically ill and ended up in the hospital because he felt guilty for promoting a technologically positivist viewpoint of modernism.
Rising from his profound experience in the hospital, Isozaki formulated a theory of architecture that would guide what would be his most significant work. The crux: “Space equals darkness, time equals termination (escatology), and matter, or architecture and cities, equals ruin and ashes.” This represented his unique version of the postmodern linguistic turn, as he engaged with semiotics and form-giving through the lens of impermanence and ruin. He saw the void, negative space, and ruin as the rhetorical and cultural antithesis of architecture.
Isozaki had already been exploring these ideas in Electric Labyrinth for the 1968 Milan Triennale. He created an installation of large silk prints showing the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki alongside futurist visions of the Metabolists. This metaphorical evocation of these tragic events juxtaposed with the architectural positivism illustrated Isozaki’s cynicism about Metabolism, but also his reluctance to subscribe to any style in favor of his own underlying conceptual affinities, such as temporality, impermanence, irony, and collages of ideas and spaces.
This collage mentality was developed at the building scale in one of the most aggressive examples of historicism in the postmodern era and one of Isozaki’s most influential projects. According to Emmanuel Petit in Irony; or, The Self-critical Opacity of Post-modern Architecture, the Tsukuba Civic Centre “emerged as an assemblage of fragments diachronically cut from diverse historical contexts. The building’s composite anatomy of recognisable architectural fragments surfaces as a 'group portrait,' in Isozaki’s own words, comprising materials taken from such diverse sources as Michelangelo, Ledoux, Giulio Romano, Otto Wagner, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Charles Moore, Aldo Rossi, Hans Hollein, Peter Cook, Adalberto Libera, Philip Johnson, Leon Krier, Lawrence Halprin, and Ettore Sottsass." The project assembled these fragments into a sort of bodily composition meant to sit in contrast with the gridded rigidity of the rest of the town. The invented and somewhat arbitrary historical narrative paradoxically provided context for a town that had little real history.
Perhaps Isozaki’s most important project was his design for the Palladium nightclub in New York, which opened in 1985 and closed in 1997. The lavish Beaux Arts interior of the former theater was augmented with a white grid and an orgy of light, sound, projection, and music that created what he saw as a technological environment. Like the Osaka robot, the relationship of architecture and bodies was in constant feedback, while Isozaki’s critical ideas about the false utopias of modernism came through via his references to “ghost-figures” of the Edo period of Japanese history and the ruins of Hiroshima.
Later in his career, Isozaki was again able to adapt to the times, as his work became less critical and more elegant. Many architects enter what Jencks would call a “late-mellow” phase, and Isozaki’s was not unexciting. Beautiful, competent buildings such as the Shanghai Symphony, Palm Springs Desert Shelters, and the slightly wacky Qatar Convention Center.
But the Pritzker (and architecture in general) is not just about finished projects. It is about ideas, drawings, and writing. Isozaki also had an influence on drawing with “120 Invisible Cities,” a series of speculative projects made with a silkscreen technique. Precursors to Illustrator graphics and cartoonish renderings that pervade architecture’s avant-garde today, Isozaki’s flattened graphics were also used on the Los Angeles MOCA project. He also used the silkscreen method for his entry for the New Tokyo City Hall competition, which he lost to Kenzo Tange. Isozaki even made an early foray into the digital, producing some computer drawings for the City Hall project in 1986.
Let’s face it—the Pritzker Prize is a relic from another era. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t serve as a useful tool for highlighting the great minds of the discipline and profession of architecture. Isozaki might not be the most avant-garde, politically correct pick at first Google, but for those who are paying attention, it is a great capstone on a truly incredible career.
Photographs document the Italian Fascist architecture of Eritrea
Walking the central streets of Asmara, Eritrea, for the first time can be quite a puzzling experience for a foreigner. The capital city is full of structures and modernist buildings that blend Art Deco and Futurist styles. Shops and bars have signage that could easily be found in Italy: Farmacia Centrale, Bar Crispi, Cinema Roma, mixed with many in the Tigrinya and Arabic languages.
In fact, the city was planned and built in its current form during the Italian colonization of Eritrea starting in the 1890s. When the Fascist Regime took over, Mussolini set out to build an overseas empire with Asmara as the model city of his colonial expansion.
Many recognize the effects of colonization on the architectural quality of the city. But few acknowledge one of its most controversial aspects: racial segregation.
Since the very beginning, the city’s master plans aimed to separate Italians from Eritreans and enforced this when dividing the city into four separate sections: a European-only quarter in the south, an Eritrean quarter in the north, a mixed zone around the central market for both groups, and an industrial zone in the northeast.
Historically, Eritreans needed a special permit to cross into the European-only side of Asmara to go to work as housekeepers, artisans, and masons. Today, some of the local elderly still refer to the city’s center as the “Fenced Field” because one of the original Italian outposts was called Campo Cintato–or “fenced field” in Italian.
The Eritrean quarter, known as Aba Shawl, was the most densely populated in the city and largely left unplanned. Ninety years later, the effects of this lack of planning are still visible today. The construction quality of the buildings is not comparable to the rest of Asmara; some have neither running water nor bathrooms. When it rains, the streets get coated in mud because there is no stormwater drainage system. The people who live here are still poorer than inhabitants elsewhere in the city.
But despite all of this—or perhaps due to the lack of planning—Aba Shawl has become the Eritrean face of Asmara, which complements the Italian part of town.
Starting in the 1910s, Italian architects merged vernacular Eritrean elements into the architecture of the city—both in Italian and indigenous areas—and constructed a mosque, an Orthodox church, and movie theaters for the Eritrean population.
In 1938, the Fascists, intending to enforce newly drafted racial law, set forth a plan to bulldoze Aba Shawl and relocate its dwellers farther out from the city center. However, the local governor—afraid of alienating the indigenous population—stopped the plan. A few years later, Mussolini lost control of the country to the British, and Eritrea began a decade-long struggle to achieve full independence. This didn’t come until 1993, after a gruesome war with Ethiopia. Since then, the Eritrean capital has been in the process of reclamation and reappropriation of its colonial past and architectural legacy. In 2017, UNESCO declared the center of Asmara, including Aba Shawl, a world heritage site.
When asked why Asmarinos care so much about their city, a worker from its heritage office said: “These buildings might have been designed by the Italians, but it’s our grandfathers who built them, it’s us who preserved them and live in them. These buildings are our own buildings now.”