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Give It Up

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Shoptalk: Peter Cook

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THE NEW, TRUE SPIRIT

Singular glories are a thing of the past, writes Andrew Yang. Architecture firmssbig and small, young and established, independent and corporateeare collaborating to create new design models, in project and in practice.

This past summer, Sir Richard Rogers arrived in New York, where his firm, Richard Rogers Partnership, had just been awarded a contract to redesign New York's East River Waterfront from Battery Park to the Lower East Sideea commission landed with SHoP Architects. We're not really about conquering,, he told The Architect's Newspaper at the time. We're more about collaboration.. Rogers, whose first major project was a collaboration with Renzo Piano to create the Centre Georges Pompidou, is echoing a level of openness that has helped his 30-year-old practice integrate its resources with the young upstart SHoP, an office that is less than ten years old and heavily influenced by new technologies.

As the competition for plum projects becomes more cut-throat, firms are increasingly taking less of a divide and conquer attitude, and opting for an approach that is more open to exchange and sharinggeverything from office space to design fees. Since the competition to design Ground Zero resulted in ber-teams like Steven Holl, Richard Meier, and Peter Eisenman; United Architects (UN Studio, Foreign Office Architects, Greg Lynn), and THINK (Frederic Schwartz, Rafael Viioly, Shigeru Ban), SHoP and Rogers is only one of many high-profile design teams that have emerged to take on large, complex public projects. When competing for large-scale urban redevelopment undertakings such as the High Line, the East River Waterfront, speculative projects for New York's Olympic bid, and others, pooling talent has become de rigueur, if not en vogue.

The idea that architecture is shaped by one all-powerful creative geniusssuch as the mighty hand of Corbbis slowly starting to dissipate as built realities become more complicated. While contributions to large projects have always necessitated a variety of different playerss structural engineers, architects of record, lighting specialists, interior designers, graphic design consultants, landscape architects, et ceteraanever before has the role of design lead been so open to interpretation by designers themselves.

Landscape designer Diana Balmori and architect Joel Sanders' collaborative design of the equestrian center for NYC2012 (top). Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Olafur Eliasson, Piet Oudolf, and Buro Happold's winning entry in the High Line competition (left).

The practice of stacking a team to include the expertise or profile required by a particular RFQ or RFP is nothing new. It's also common for firms with international work to bring on local partners to help realize projects in contexts with which they are unfamiliar. After winning the competition to design the new headquarters for The New York Times, Renzo Piano tapped Fox & Fowle Architects for its experience building skyscrapers in New York City (Fox & Fowle is behind many of the tall buildings in Times Square, including the Condd Nast Building, not far from The New York Times site). When the two firms started working together, the project really started over again,, explained Bruce Fowle. As the firm began to integrate Piano's design with the restraints of New York's Byzantine building codes, the design altered drastically. Along with other details, a dramatic cantilever in the base was eliminated in favor of a more realistic structure. Previously, many collaborative arrangements have seen one firm leading the others, and the others working in the service of the lead firm. The nature of collaborations might be shifting, however, with firms seeking collaborations not out of necessity but out of desire to enrich their own design processes and, ultimately, the final product.

Zaha Hadid Architects with Balmori Associates, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Studio MDA's finalist design for the High Line competition (left).

When the firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer disbanded last summer after 37 years of practice, partner Hugh Hardy named his new venture H3 Hardy Collaboration. We're not making an exclusive practice of just working with other architects. We think of collaboration as a big idea,, said Hardy, who is working with Frank Gehry on a new theater for the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district, as well as entering into a competition with Enrique Norten for a new theater at Ground Zero. The collaboration involved with each projectteven when it's your own firm projecttinvolves everybodyyclients, consultantsseverybody..

The close circles of the architecture profession often dictate the many reciprocal relationships that now crowd the competition scene. While Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos have built their practice, UN Studio, on a model of collaborations between various specialists for years, the United Architects team is one of the most visible and memorable collaborative efforts within recent years. The relationships among its membersswhich include New Yorkkbased designers Reiser+Umemoto and Kevin Kennon and Mikon von Gastel of the motion-graphics studio Imaginary Forcesshad been in place for many years when they all decided to participate in the WTC competition together. In our case, we were teaching and became friends, and slowly began to influence each other's work,, explained van Berkel. Some members of the group had met at a conference years ago that was organized by Jeffrey Kipnis at Ohio State University. There were heavy brainstorms of the quality of each other's work,, said van Berkel. The relationships were beginning to form. Nobody knew it at that time, but we called ourselves The Ohio Group.' We were invisible at the time..

Meanwhile, SHoP's partnership with Rogers' firm resulted from a simple cold call. According to Chris Sharples, one of the five partners of SHoP, the firm had wanted to go after the East River project, but did not have enough significant civic projects under its belt. SHoP had always wanted to work with Rogers. So they called London, and the rest is becoming history.

Regardless of how collaborations are formed, many architects are finding the experience rewarding. Since winning the job earlier this year, both SHoP and Rogers have learned to integrate their operations, despite the dramatic difference in each office's size. We've gained a tremendous amount of knowledge working with their team,, said Sharples. There's a lot in their partner structure that we'd like to integrate into our office in the futuree?for example, weekly directors' meetings (at Rogers, partners are titled directors) to review each other's projects.

The Arnhem Central Station by UN Studio and engineer Cecil Balmond

However, not all collaborative relationships are as rewarding and collegial as they may seem. There have been several reports that, within both the Holl/Meier/Eisenman and United Architects teams, one architect's vision eventually came to dominate that of the others. The issue of credit, too, is (as it's always been) a potential minefield, with participantssand perhaps more problematically, the mediaaeager to point out individual contributions. There's also the threat of one party running off with the commission, or controlling it to the extent that it can dump other collaboratorsssomething that architect Michael Sorkin unfortunately experienced when he teamed up with landscape architect Margie Ruddick for the Queens Plaza project earlier this year.

Landscape architect Diana Balmori, a finalist for the High Line competition, a team consisting of Zaha Hadid, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, and Studio MDA, warned that working relationships need to be carefully considered, and that collaborations often don't work the way they seem to. Speaking from her own experiences, she said, Right now, the model is very different than it was in the past [for landscape architects]. Collaboration didn't workkand doesn't work,, she said, since most collaborations come in the wake of a scramble for RFPs that doesn't allow the time for proper exchange. Teams are built for the sole purpose of assembling an image, and that really doesn't give you the time to put the different pieces together..

The High Line project, which was eventually awarded to the formidable team of Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Olafur Eliasson, Piet Oudolf, and Buro Happold, was heavily sought after by teams that consisted of not only structural engineers and landscape architects but also graphic designers, artists, and consultants for elevators, lighting, and historic preservation. The High Line was one of those rare cases, a very satisfying experience,, said Balmori. As a team, we were able to put the pieces together and start integrating something with much greater vision. The problem is, we lost the competition before we got to that part.. In the end, she reflected, the architecture remained totally by itself and we were never able to put it in the big image..

>

The New York Times headquarters has been a collaborative effort by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Fox & Fowle Architects.

Image, however, might have everything to do with trend toward collaboration. Beyond the expectation of super-teams producing super-projects, a star-studded team is a marketer's (and developer's and politician's) dream. Never mind the actual results. A project could be considered a blockbuster on the basis of its cast alone (think of Ocean's Eleven).

A less skeptical reading of this trend, however, is the genuine interest that many architects express in expanding process and sharing ideas. The assembly of architects as a true union of peers is a heartening development in a field where a big ego is a survival tool and in a world that has not yet lost its taste for signature architecture. For some, eschewing the star vehicless of the past in favor of collaboration is the best expression of the balance of ideas that design should embody.

Since the High Line experience, Balmori has made a permanent commitment of sorts to working with architect Joel Sanders to pursue projects, an effort that has required reorganizing each office. Their first joint project was the design of an equestrian center for New York's Olympic bid. The alliance between a landscape architect and an architect is hardly unusual but this sustained and equal collaboration is telling of how Balmori and Sanders approach their work. They see contextthow a building fits into its surroundingssas a paramount concern and don't regard one aspect of a project as any more or less important than another.

Collaborations must be carefully considered, however. Because we're not a style-based practice, we're not trying to protect something or impose something on a project that doesn't want it,, said Sharples. If we were working with someone with a strong style, they would want to make sure that their style is in there.. They found a perfect match. According to Ivan Harbour, a director at Richard Rogers Partnership, Our approach is very fluiddit's not We want this, this, and this.''

This collaborative mode of practice may not be possible or even desirable for every projectt?I don't think you'll be putting together five architects to design an Alessi teapot,, joked van Berkel, who is working with engineer Cecil Balmond on the Arnhem Central Station. However, there is an increased demand and conscientiousness on the part of the client, according to van Berkel. Now we've noticed that clients are becoming more sophisticated. They have their own specialists, including marketing people,, said van Berkel. As long as they get a good product, he explained, they don't care about how many names they have to put on the press release..

This is really about creating ways to allow the profession to evolve,, said Sharples, who, along with his colleagues, set out as young architects to explore the feasibility of a decentralized five-way partnership. We're finding that [in larger projects], it requires a collective enterprise.. Given all the factors now at play in designntechnology, sustainability, contextualismmthe answer is rarely going to come from one place. And that's how architects have to sell themselves,, he said.  ANDREW YANG IS A CONTRIBUTOR TO AN, AND ALSO A WRITER FOR WALLPAPER, DWELL, AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

Shoptalk: Peter Lang

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From The Belly of the Whale

With the theme Metamorph,the 9th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is an aquarium of exotic architectural creatures. Richard Ingersoll attempts to make sense of the mmlange.

Asymptote conceived of the environmental design for the Metamorph exhibition, which occupies the Corderie dell'Arsenale (left).
Renzo Piano Building Workshop's 2002 Parco della Musica in Rome (below right) resembles three beetles. Foster and Partner's The Sage
Gateshead in Northern England (below left), slated to open in December, looks like a giant sea slug.

It probably all began with a fish. Not GGnter Grass' tale of the world-weary flounder, but Frank O. Gehry's love of wiggly marine life. The hundreds of models that recently washed up for the central exhibition of the 9th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, installed in the half-kilometer-long Corderie dell'Arsenale, appear like partially digested morsels of underwater creatures clinging to a series of colossal, stark white plaster ribs. Snack food for the Leviathan. The trend in architecture, privileged by the Biennale's mercurial director, Kurt Forster, oscillates between the desire to represent natural forms that have metamorphosed from the conventional notion of building and the desire not to represent at all, but to create random shapes through the accidents of computer morphing.. Thus the exhibition's syncretic theme, Metamorph. The ribbed installation, designed by the digitally endowed New York office Asymptote, breaks down the interminable axis of the column-lined hall by placing each exhibition platform laterally, forcing the visitor to meander in picturesque circuits. Each of the three dozen podia has an irregular streamlined shape that is different from but related to the ones nearest it. These sinuous ribbons are fascinating as sculpture, work fairly well for exhibiting the displays (though the flat bases of each of the models had to be adjusted to the platforms' irregular surfaces), and invest the space with a resounding metaphoric unity. Like most of the projects in the show, however, Asymptote's ribs demonstrate a lack of interest in constructional or structural determinants, approaching form as something that could be grown rather than built.

As Hani Rashid, principal of Asymptote and spokesman for a new generation of digital designers put it, With the aid of computing a newly evolved architecture is emerging. It is within the grasp of architects and artists today to discover and evoke a digitally induced spatial delirium, where a merging of simulation and effect with physical reality creates the possibility of a sublime morphing from thought to actualization.. Let us agree that the Vitruvian categories of commodity and firmness have no place in this hallucinogenic purview. And even the third canonical objective, delight, is much abused. Those who visit the main exhibition of the Biennale will come away with a clear sense of a styleevaguely organic, neo-picturesque, and sublimely homely. Most of the projects also seem technically dubious and extremely expensive to build because of their awkward geometries. While there is an undercurrent of concern for the environment and many designs consciously simulate natural forms, there is no attempt to justify the works from a social, technical, or ecological point of view. Thus the show concentrates almost completely on a current tasteea new version of expressionismmthat appeals to some of the cultural elite of advanced capitalism. Forster, a Swiss-born art historian, the founding director of the Getty Center, and for two years the director of the Canadian Center for Architecture, came to the job with a formidable intellectual and institutional background. While one may take issue with the content of the Biennale, its concept has been convincingly displayed and given an excellent pedagogical armature in the three-volume catalogue. In some ways, the basis of the show was prepared by writer Marina Warner, who curated an art exhibition with a similar theme at the Science Museum in London in 2002. In her view, the taste for metamorphosis accompanies the anxious desire for self-transformation in an advanced technological society. Historian Juan Antonio Ramirez sees the trend in a more political light, especially after the events of September 11 in New York and March 11 in Madrid, declaring that the nascent 21st century's love affair with pulverized ruins, relies on the demolition of democratic institutions. Any analysis of our social political reality would define the sides of the triangle in which we move as: lies, usurpation, and ruin..

Unfortunately the critical and skeptical insights of the catalogue are unable to shape the experience of the exhibition, which is by nature an endorsement of style. Forster has pursued a personal theoretical agenda that revolves around two of his close friends: Peter Eisenman, with whom he founded Oppositions magazine in the 1970s and commissioned a project for an unbuilt house, Eleven-A, and Frank O. Gehry, for whom he has often acted as an intermediary or glossator. While recently the architectural styles of Eisenman and Gehry seem to be converging toward an organicist mode, their approaches to architecture are diametrically opposed. Eisenman's methods celebrate the autonomous capacity of geometry and computation to signify, while Gehry relies on artistic intuition and metaphor. Eisenman's line of thought has led to computer morphing, while Gehry's has led to an appreciation of zoomorphic and crystalline iconography requiring computer modeling to be realized. The formal results of each are intentionally monstrous with respect to architectural conventions and urban contexts, appealing to the aesthetic theory of the sublime.

Gehry is well represented at the Biennale with the show's largest model, of the recently completed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, a stainless steellclad sibling of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Eisenman, meanwhile, was given an entire room to make an installation about his work. The most interesting projects, both currently under construction, seem like ventures into land art: the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. In addition, Eisenman was honored with the Biennale's Lifetime Achievement Award. His built works, so often instant ruins, such as House VI or the Wexner Center at Ohio State, should serve as a parable for the Metamorph style: You can fantasize and digitize all you like, but that won't stop a building from leaking.

(Abobe) Stavanger Concert Hall by PLOT; (Left) Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry; and (Below) Peter Eisenman's City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela.

To give substance to the trend toward a new expressionist taste, Forster assembled a separate exhibition on contemporary concert halls. The peculiar demands of acoustical engineering and the monumental imagery often attached to these projects give them a particular iconic power in an urban setting. Like the museum, concert halls serve as a kind of scapegoat for the demise of civic life. To see so many together, one has little doubt that they adhere to the underlying taste of Metamorph. Starting with JJrn Utzon's Sydney Opera House and Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic, both designed in the 1950s, the 40 models of recent solutions demonstrate that the type has yielded some of the weirdest forms in architectural history. Acoustical engineering seems to have bestowed a functionalist precept for irregular forms that struggle against the orthogonality of most urban contexts. The prize-winner in this part of the show, an unbuilt project for a two part concert hall in Stavanger, Norway, by the Danish office PLOT, is an ingenious solution that unites two monolithic parallelipeds with steps that wrap around the base of the buildings and then continue as a louvered facade to the roof. The risers are translucent, allowing slats of daylight into the structure and at night creating a magical light box effect, like a Noguchi lantern. One can still recognize a humanist bias in the approach, especially when compared to other projects such as the Dutch office NOX's recently completed installation Son-O-House, which looks like guts spilled on a sidewalk. The trend in zoomorphic transformations and picturesque planning is evident even among the most technologically astute offices. Norman Foster's The Sage Gateshead music hall rests like a giant sea slug on the banks of the River Tyne and Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica in Rome resembles three beetles. Despite being the largest international exhibition for architecture, the Biennale this year cannot be said to represent the world's architecture. And while there is no hierarchy or singling out of any particular nation, the curatorial concentration on the quirks of a particular aspect of high style is unavoidably discriminatory. The Biennale has always compensated for its elitism in the dozens of national pavilions, where each country assigns a curator to assemble a show. The pavilion prize went to Belgium, which presented an artist's and anthropologist's vision of Kinshasha, a mod- est consideration of Congolese vernacular adaptations in a situation far removed from the patronage necessary for the projects of Metamorph. A work of postcolonial guilt, it stood out from the rest of the Biennale as a reminder of architecture's misplaced priorities.

The Japanese pavilion was exceptional in its conceptualism, bringing together a myriad of images from pop culture surrounding the figure of the eternally adolescent and aimless computer nerd, christened Otaku. The chaotic but repetitious assembly of plastic toys and bright colored posters creates a convincing idea of how the trivial products, games, and junk of consumerism have become elements of contemporary urbanism. The other pavilion that caught my attention was Germany's, a fascinating photomontage mural that undulated from room to room, seamlessly blending 37 contemporary works of architecture into the landscape of sprawl. Has sprawl finally become beautiful? Finally, the U.S. pavilion, which relies on private sponsors, showed the work of six offices, three of which are very morphy and three that are not. The Biennale's juried prizes went to SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) for two works, the Contemporary Art Museum in Kanazawa, Japan, and the Valencia Institute of Modern Art in Valencia. Other awards were given to Foreign Office Architects (Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi) for its terraced, undulating hanging garden scheme for a car park at the Novartis campus in Basel, and Marttnez-Lapeea and Torres for its design of an exhibition platform and photovoltaic tower at the new convention center area of Forum 2004, which covers Barcelona's water treatment plant. The new expressionism of Metamorph opens a perennial problem, not just of technique and social program but of aesthetics. Hybrid works such as many of those presented in the Biennale are misfitsslinguistically closed, impractical to construct, and difficult to adapt to. Their meaning is circumscribed by their uniqueness of form, which greatly limits their chances to be understood. They are doomed to extinction as they are unable to cooperate with reality. Will we someday find ourselves rallying to save the architectural whales? Richard Ingersoll is a critic based in Italy. His latest book is Sprawltown (Meltemi, 2004).

Shoptalk: Craig Konyk

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Eavesdrop Issue 13_07.27.2004

COOPER-HEWITT EXORCIZES MAILER DAEMONS
The Cooper-Hewitt has had its difficulties in the past few years, but we had no idea how serious its e-mail problem was. And we're not talking about viruses or spam. It seems a bout of emailitiss recently prompted the design museum's administrators to schedule a somewhat infantalizing employee workshop on e-mail do's and don'ts.. With an excruciatingly thorough, 13-slide PowerPoint presentation obtained by EavesDrop, staffers were instructed on such matters as how to use the Reply-All function ((judiciouslyy) and the proper length of a subject line ((223 wordss). Reminded that E-mail is NOT an outlet for emotion,, they were also told to Avoid unnecessary repliess such as Thank youu and You're welcome.. And in case you're wondering, before sending any messages, one should ask oneself: Does it make sense?? Some of this is obvious,, acknowledges the museum's rep, Jennifer Northrup, who put the presentation together. But a lot of staff said they appreciated it and saw the need.. The presentation was subsequently e-mailed to workshop attendees (and then to ussoops!), with a note admonishing them to review it again and implement changes to [their] email habits.. It also announced yet another meeting in September to evaluate our collective emailitis.. There was no update on proposed potty training classes.

SCI-ARC'S UNHAPPY LOT
There's perhaps nothing worse than depriving Angelenos of their parking spaces. Especially when a big bad developer is to blame, and the victims are a bunch of architecture students who don't seem to like what said developer wants to build. Indeed, things are getting ugly between the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and developers Richard Meruelo and Daniel Villanueva. As first reported two weeks ago in the Los Angeles Downtown News, Meruelo and Villanueva plan to build two residential highrises on a 15-acre parking lot adjacent to the school, currently used by SCI-Arc students and staff. They're also reportedly trying to buy the land on which the school itself sits (which it currently leases). Needless to say, SCI-Arc doesn't like either proposallone faculty member we contacted disparagingly describes the towers as Miami-stylee?and filed suit to block the latter. The developers' response? In a classic tit-for-tat, they erected a fence around the parking lot, which locals have since dubbed the Berlin Wall.. They built it right against the building,, the outraged instructor says, so we not only lost our parking, but we couldn't even exit the building on that side.. We're told the fence has since been moved a few feet, but the battle rages on.

MOVE OVER, KARIM
We hear Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote, who are also design- ing the main installation at this fall's Venice Biennale, are working on a top-secret project for Alessi. Rashid confirms that a collaboration with the celebrated design manufacturer is currently in its prototyping phase. However, he would only say that it will be an extension of what Alessi is known forr that also ventures into new territory, just as the kitchenware- and tabletop-maker has done with recent forays into bath fixtures and small appliances. When asked whether the commission has sparked any sibling rivalry with his ubiquitous brother, Karim, Rashid chuckled, No, he's a very busy guy and has lots of other clients..

LET SLIP:achen@archpaper.com

Shoptalk: Barbara A. Nadel

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Invisible Memorial

After seven years of fits and starts, the United States General Services Administration's project to memorialize downtown's African Burial Ground is taking off again. But does the latest series of public forums really mean the process is back on track? Deborah Grossberg investigates.

Although the United States General Services Administration (GSA) has received high honors in recent months from the National Building Museum and the American Architectural Foundation for its design achievements, the organization stands accused by some New Yorkers of dropping the ball on a crucial project close to home: the African Burial Ground Memorial. After the high-profile discovery of the historic site nearly 15 years ago and the announcement of an RFP for a memorial design in 1997, the project has fallen off the GSA's and the public's radar. Basically, the GSA's been on vacation on this project,, said Mabel Wilson, an architect on the finalist team GroundWorks, whose design was selected along with four others in February 2003.

City councilmember Charles Barron, an active participant on the Committee of the Descendants of the African Burial Ground, voiced his dissatisfaction more forcefully: The GSA has been showing us the same kind of arrogance and disrespect as it displayed at the beginning of this project..

On a map from 1763 (left), a rectangular 6-acre strip just north of the Commons today's City Hall Parkkis labeled Negro Burial Ground..

Acknowledging that the memorial was, in the words of GSA chief of staff Karl Reichelt, long overdue,, the GSA stepped up the pace on the project last year. In September, the organization brought in the National Parks Service (NPS) as a consultant and public liaison, a role it often plays in work involving national historic landmarks. (The African Burial Ground was designated a landmark in 1993.) We're not necessarily in the business of building memorials,, said Mark Dremel, project manager for the African Burial Ground at the GSA. NPS knows monuments and memorials. They're taking the lead on this.. Dennis Montagna of NPS agreed. The GSA ran the competition much like its arts and architecture program, which primarily contracts design and construction services and commissions works of art for federal buildings,, he said. At a certain point the competition just ground to a halt.. NPS got the ball rolling in May, facilitating two small public workshops as a prelude to five larger, if under-publicized, forums held at schools, churches, and community centers in each borough in mid-June. The forums in turn set in motion a six-week revision process to be followed by final submissions and the selection of a winner, though the GSA has not set dates for those milestones. The memorial is slated for completion in December 2005, according to the GSA.

The African Burial Ground project fell into the GSA's hands in 1989 while it was conducting a cultural site survey for a federal office building at the corner of Broadway and Duane Street. The study, mandated by the 1966 Historic Preservation Act, uncovered 18th-century maps depicting a forgotten African graveyard occupying 6 acres just north of City Hall Parkkknown in colonial times as the Commonsscutting through the south side of the GSA's building site.

The find reversed centuries of hidden history for New York's African-American community. The African Burial Ground proved that Harlem is not the only black New York,, said Eustace Pilgrim, director of graphics at the Department of City Planning and one of the memorial finalists.

Preserved under 20 feet of landfill, the African Burial Ground occupies what was once a desolate ravine outside city limits. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and English settlers denied Africans permission to bury their dead in church graveyards within the city proper, forcing them to use this out-of-the-way, undesirable strip of land. Archaeologists estimate that approximately 20,000 Africans, both enslaved and free, were buried on the site from the late 1600s to 1794, when the burial ground was closed. Memories of its existence slowly faded after Dutch-Americans brought the site to grade in the early 1800s. In 1991 the GSA began archaeological site testing. The African-American community, already frustrated at its exclusion from the process, became enraged when The New York Times reported that the GSA planned to excavate the burial ground with the so-called coroner's method, a technique consisting of digging up graves with a backhoe. Waging a grassroots campaign, activists campaigned for increased oversight. In December 1991 Senator David A. Paterson established a task force to supervise the project. Soon thereafter, the GSA signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission outlining its responsibilities to the African Burial Ground, including the construction of a memorial on the site.

The African Burial Ground Memorial's five finalist designs attempt to tread lightly on a site many consider sacred.

At left & below: GroundWorks proposes greening the site, save a small clearing for a lanternlike spirit catcher,, a chamber for contemplation and mourning.

Below to bottom of page: Eustace Pilgrim and Christopher Davis have created a sloped berm with a curved wall adorned with Yoruba-inspired terracotta faces;

McKissack & McKissack's slave ship tells a literal tale of suffering;

Joseph DePace's proposal refers to African burial practices;

Rodney Leon draws from African architecture with its spiral path leading to a libation chamber.

The GSA completed construction of its $276 million building at 290 Broadway on a piece of the site deemed by archaeologists to contain no human remains in 1995. The memorial project was a mitigation of our responsibility for constructing a building on the burial ground site,, said GSA's Dremel. The MOA also required the GSA to fund a research project to study human remains removed from the site. Dr. Michael Blakey of Howard University led the research team whose findings have provided new insight into the brutal conditions of slavery in colonial New York City, which was the second-largest slave port in the U.S. in the 18th century, after Charleston, South Carolina. At the time, 10 to 20 percent of the city's population was of African descent. To date, the GSA has spent $30 million on archaeological and anthropological research. Dremel blamed the memorial competition's holdup on the lengthy research being conducted at Howard. But many wonder why the memorial project could not have gone forward at the same time as the research, as was originally planned. The initial RFP asked us to accommodate a future reinterment of human remains and artifacts,, said architect and finalist Joseph DePace. Reburial of the remains on the site took place at a ceremony last October. Now that the remains are back in the ground it's unclear whether further construction on this site poses the possibility of some kind of disrespect,, said DePace.

Tender treatment of the site, which many community members see as sacred, was a hot topic at the June forums. But dialogue was repeatedly bogged down by questions that were more suitable for a GSA delegate than the newly appointed NPS representative and designers who were present at the meetings. Community members also expressed disappointment at the forums' poor attendance, claiming they had not been well organized. Forums drew between 20 and 80 people in auditoriums capable of seating hundreds.

At the June 14 forum in Brooklyn, attendees debated whether building on the site would be sacrilegious. Ollie McLean of the Descendants of the African Burial Ground asserted, We don't build on a sacred cemetery. We want a green, landscaped space with an eternal flame on that land.. As an alternative, McLean suggested seizing abutting properties by eminent domain, one for the memorial and the other for a museum dedicated to African-American history. In Brooklyn, we're displacing thousands for a ballpark. It's the least GSA can do..

Rodney Leon, a finalist and principal of AARRIS Architects, looked at the issue differently. There's a difference between an occupied building and a memorial. The real question is how do you create a gravestone for 20,000 anonymous people? How do you undo their anonymity?? Leon derived his design's sequence of monumental formssa spiral ramp, a circular gathering space, and a triangular tapering towerrfrom West and North African architecture. The forms create a visible contrast against the grid of the city,, said Leon.

Other forum participants supported building on the site, arguing for the use of references to African burial practices. Said one, If you're looking for the place where we put buildings on our dead, then you'll find it in Africa.. The same speaker cited Egyptian pyramids and Dogon burials within the walls of houses as examples. DePace agreed, arguing, Paradoxically, [the Descendants' proposals] are referencing European burial practices.. DePace's project uses African symbols and materials like a pyramidal perimeter fence woven from copper strips and a groundcover of crushed white oyster shells, used to decorate graves in West Africa to symbolize the spirit living on the sea. Our design is respectful of the site's sacred nature, touching lightly on the ground,, he said. Eustace Pilgrim and Christopher Davis, a team of artists, also emphasized a light touch with a design that features a curved pathway dividing a landscaped berm from a reflecting pool.

Herbert Wilson, III, of McKissack & McKissack, one of the finalists and principal of the oldest minority-owned architecture firm in the nation, defended his team's plan to put a more substantial building on the site. We need to mark the site with a symbol that stands out for years and is emblematic of lives lost.. His firm's project references the middle passage with a ribbed structure in the form of a slave ship surrounded by reflecting pools, waterfalls, and a sound installation of screams meant to recall the terror of slaves flung overboard.

Constructive public design dialogues notwithstanding, the projecttnow in its seventh yearrremains crippled by lack of managerial continuity. Consistency has been an issue,, conceded Dr. Sherrill D. Wilson, director of the Office of Public Education and Interpretation of the African Burial Ground (OPEI), an informational center funded by GSA. We're the only functioning part of the project that's been here from the beginning..

Adding to the confusion is the issue of the project's budget, which, according to the GSA, may get a boost from its initial cap of $1 million to account for inflation. But GSA has not released an estimate of the exact increase, forcing finalists to guess for themselves. As it stands, some hope for $2.5 million while others are attempting to stay within the original budget. Mabel Wilson sees the project's delays as unsurprising continuations of the site's history of invisibility. Slavery is the blind spot in America's eye,, said Wilson. The government and the general public don't see this site as visible and relevant..

Wilson intends to combat the site's invisibility by greening the memorial site as well as the landscape surrounding the buildings on the entire burial ground. The centerpiece of her team's project, a glowing, tapered glass shelter, appears in a clearing within the larger grove. Wilson said, Though the plan goes beyond the scope of the competition, it's a relatively feasible way to make visible an area of the city whose history has been systematically erased and forgotten..

With no date set for the announcement of the winning design, no jury publicly named, no clear budget, and no disclosure of what the remainder of the memorial-building process would entail, it remains to be seen whether the GSA and the NPS will give the African Burial Ground Memorial the visibility it deserves.

Deborah Grossberg is an assistant editor at AN.

Shoptalk: Ed Manning

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The Shipping News
 
 

As shipping containers begin to break out of Red Hook, Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the outer-borough rail yards that are their natural habitat, and show up on the Upper East Side's museum row, it is fair to ask: Why containers, and why now? The architectural zeitgeist has settled -- at least for the summer -- on the container as the building material of moment. In New York City, two projects are on display: Sean Godsell's Future Shack is currently in the garden of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and LOT-EK's Mobile Dwelling Unit will open on July 1 in the Sculpture Court at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Another container-based project, Adam Kalkin's Quik House, was installed this spring at Deitch Projects in SoHo as a part of the gallery's exhibition, Suburban House Kit. It closed on March 27.)

LOT-EK's Mobile Dwelling Unit (MDU) is the prototype of what the firm imagines could be a moveable living space that would plug into a purpose-made vertical infrastructure dock in cities around the world. The 40-foot container is fitted out with zones for sleeping, living, bathing, cooking, and working. Once it is lifted into place and attached to the hypothetical dock, each zone could slide out, creating a useable series of rooms. When the occupants want to go elsewhere, they could undock or replace individual zone modules so that the MDU's profile is once again that of a standard container, and move on.

Godsell's Future Shack represents a more Spartan approach to refitting a container for domestic uses than the MDU, but since it was conceived as a potential solution for housing refugees around the world, its rough and ready quality makes sense. The interior is clad with plywood sheets, and skylights provide interior light. A shed roof above the container is fitted with solar panels to provide electricity. Godsell had been working on the idea for several years, but since entering the Future Shack in the nonprofit group Architecture for Humanity's competition for housing refugees in Kosovo, the project has garnered notice and credibility.

Kalkin's first container project was actually a performance piece, but since then, he has moved closer to the unglamorous concerns of cheap housing. The tongue-in-cheek order form that accompanied his Deitch installation may have been the last gasp for the performative elements of his projects, because he says he is now developing ideas about containers as housing in Afghanistan.

These contemporaries clearly have some superficial similarities, but each seems to have used the shipping container as a vessel for decidedly different ideas. While Godsell's no-nonsense approach uses an abundant and inexpensive resource for its possibilities for speedy assembly and reasonably low cost to house people in need, Kalkin coyly references everything from Duschamp's multiples to 1950s ideas of modern living. Meanwhile, LOT-EK's Ada Tolla explained part of her and partner Giuseppe Lignano's fascination with shipping containers stems from the fact that they embody a much larger global system. "It is not just an object that sits," she said. "It has connotations of Asia and Africa, and the infrastructure behind this network. We try to transport that network and its systems into architecture."

The abundance of shipping containers is a byproduct of a trade imbalance that means that many more arrive in the United States than leaves. In and around New York, shipping containers are as numerous and unwanted as pigeons, with thousands arriving every year. The costs for their shippers to have them return, empty, runs up to $9000which is not much less than the cost of buying them. From the windows of the PATH train to Newark, one can see yards with countless multi-colored containers stacked high, waiting for freight that may never arrive. This glut has made them fairly cheap to buy: Depending on condition, a basic model begins at about $2,000.

People have been using shipping containers for things other than storage for a long time now -- without the help of architects, thank you very much. The yard on the outskirts of Newark periodically doubles as an unofficial homeless shelter. An auto body shop in Williamsburg uses several containers to house everything from spare parts and offices to a pair of understandably irritable Rottweilers who guard the lot at night. Seabox.com, the website of a container manufacturing and outfitting firm in East Riverton, New Jersey, shows pictures of containers tricked out as a shed with aluminum siding and Palladian windows, and in one truly impressive case, a mobile home for an elephant.

Circus animals, guard dogs, and monkey wrenches are no longer the only ones to enjoy such accommodations though. Beyond LOT-EK, Godsell, and Kalkin, firms including Jones, Partners: Architects, Jennifer Siegal's Office of Mobile Design, and even typically mild-mannered Fox & Fowle have developed proposalssand in Siegal's case, actually builttfor projects ranging from single-family houses to large-scale, multi-unit developments. While Jones and Siegal have both used the boxes as the basis for prefabricated houses, Fox & Fowle's award-winning entry to a Boston Society of Architects ideas competition sketches out a development of 351 live/work units on a 18.5 acre brownfield site in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The plan is still more of a conceptual exercise than anything at this point, according to lead architect Mark Strauss. Strauss says that he chose containers as the building block because of their structural qualities and the chance to address the problem of their abundance.

From a material standpoint, it is easy to see why the homely shipping container has seduced so many architects. They have a steel framework that is not compromised when several are stacked up, and steel or aluminum cladding that can be modified or stripped away fairly easily. Containers are often insulated and waterproof, and come with wooden floors. There are international size standards, with the most typical modules being 8 feet wide, 8 feet and 6 inches high, and 20 feet long.

The London-based real estate development and management firm Urban Space Management has demonstrated the practical and urbanistic potential of container-based buildings in Container City on Trinity Wharf in the Docklands. In creating artists' live/work spaces, they found the cost to construct a new building would have amounted to 120 per square foottabout three times what artists typically pay for studio space. Containers were an affordable and structurally efficient alternative. The first Container City, completed in 2000, was so successful that two others have followed.

According to both Ada Tolla and Mark Strauss, the short answer to the question of shipping container's sudden appearance in the spotlight is a straightforward one: Because they are there, and there are so many of them. Their long answers are more complex (and very different) but also suggest that shipping containers, because of the variety of ways architects (and people) approach them, may not always be relegated to their rusty piles along the waterfront.

Shoptalk: Jo Steffens

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