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Opportunity Knocking

Why Airbnb should help save an architectural icon

If I had to guess, I would say that it has been forty years since Columbus, Indiana, was the hot topic of cocktail conversations at design-related get-togethers in New York City. In those days, it was the supercharged patronage of industrialist J. Irwin Miller and his relationships with designers like Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard that spurred a wave of innovative and provocative architecture in the small Midwestern town. Columbus, with a population of 45,000, has a Robert Venturi fire station, a John Johansen school, a park by Michael Van Valkenburgh, and several buildings by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, including the younger’s iconic Miller House.

However, Columbus is once again in the spotlight. Exhibit Columbus is an ongoing initiative that launched September 29 with a symposium that will set the stage for a large public design exhibition in 2017. Exhibit organizer Richard McCoy, with the assistance of local patrons and leaders such as president of the Wallace Foundation Will Miller, designer Jonathan Nesci, architect Louis Joyner, educator T. Kelly Wilson, and archivist Tricia Gilson, has built a local movement and amassed a group of world-class designers—Aranda/Lasch, Baumgartner + Uriu, Rachel Hayes, Höweler+Yoon, IKD, Ball-Nogues Studio, Johnston Marklee, Jonathan Olivares Design Research, Oyler Wu Collaborative, Plan B Architecture & Urbanism, and studio:indigenous—that are competing for the inaugural Miller Prize, an unusual head-to-head competition where ten teams will make site-specific installations for five sites in Columbus. Five will win the battle and build their proposals fall 2017.

All of this attention has once again launched Columbus into the design consciousness. Many people are excited to see what the 2017 exhibition will bring.

In parallel, there is another incredible opportunity in Columbus that could build on this momentum.

With renewed interest in the town, which thrives off of architectural tourism, the hospitality industry is booming. Notably, however, there are few Airbnb properties. A cursory search for a weekend in October returns only three listings, none of which are downtown where all of the action is. This matters because young tourists are looking for more exciting lodging options than a regular hotel. What would alternative lodging look like in Columbus today? There is a venue that would be perfect. The Cummins Occupational Health Association (COHA) was one of the most innovative buildings in Columbus, but it is now under threat because its owner, Cummins Inc., has no use for it. Originally completed in 1973 by Hugh Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, this late modernist, high-tech building is one of Columbus’s best-kept secrets. Its colorful, highly expressive exposed building systems celebrate building technology with mannerist exuberance. The spacious open plan is choreographed by a ramp that animates the space and was a revolutionary new way of building healthcare facilities in the 1970s. However, this ramp may render it inflexible for healthcare-related adaptive reuse in today’s world.

So what is the appropriate new life for COHA? One possibility would be lofts or student housing. While the town may not have the market for this typology, there might be another solution. If Airbnb bought the building, it could turn it into a cluster of rentals (like a hotel) that would be rentable on Airbnb and could piggyback off of its collaboration with Japanese architect Go Hasegawa in the Japanese village Yoshino. This project, Sugi No Ie (Yoshino Cedar House), acts as both a rental unit and community center for visitors and is owned by local community groups, thus giving back to the town and offering a community-based experience for travelers.

In this model, the town would own the space, and rent it out on Airbnb. Proceeds could benefit the Heritage Fund, which is invested in the preservation of the architecture through Landmark Columbus. Airbnb would be helping to preserve modern design.

The COHA building is perfect for this model. It needs a patron, and there is no cut-and-dry reuse for it. How cool would it be to stay or live in a radical, 1970s doctor’s office? Artists or designers could get long-term rentals, while visitors could stay for the night. It would take a visionary company like Airbnb that values design to revitalize this space into one of the world’s best design destination hotels. The company would be a hero. Let’s hope it can make this dream a reality.

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Vulnerability In Resilient Urbanism

Has "resiliency" been hijacked to justify and promote development?

The recent visioning scheme for Red Hook, Brooklyn, is a case study in the conflicting interests that contribute to any proposed change in New York neighborhoods. We all know the story of poor, underserved areas like Red Hook that are ignored for generations, and then suddenly become intense hot spots for development. This scheme proposes not just subtle adjustments, but instead hyper-development, which brings out conflict.

The shorthand to describe this process of change is the overused word “gentrification.” But development in any New York neighborhood, let alone one like Red Hook, with spectacular views of the Verrazano Bay and Manhattan, is fraught with the prospect of winners and losers. All too often in New York City, the losers have been the poor and the winners the wealthy who want (and get) to live in these prime urban sites.

AECOM, the creator of this scheme, has presented a vision (identified specifically as not a “plan”) that it claims was done in response to community demands for new investment and infrastructure. This vision encourages the public to visit AECOM’s website and offer suggestions and critique. The project has the sense of being another top-down plan, where more valuable pieces of landscape are handed over to developers.

In fact, the vision seems to check off many of the much-needed development boxes for southwest Brooklyn: three new subway stations, a bulked up manufacturing-commercial zone, and 11,250 new units of affordable housing.

One important new piece of this “non-plan” is its use of a resiliency paradigm to justify and promote the change. Red Hook is perhaps the lowest lying waterfront area west of the Rockaways and needs new physical barriers to save it from the increasing occurrences of flooding.  In a recent study of the impacts of Superstorm Sandy, “resiliency” is defined by Leigh Graham, Wim Debucquoy, and Isabelle Anguelovski, as “the degree to which a complex adaptive system is capable of self-organization and can build capacity for learning and adaptation.” The concept is usually presented in technical, engineering, and competitive business terms where social, political, and cultural issues are never a part of the equation. The AECOM vision states, for example: “Strategies could include both green and gray infrastructures that provide coastal protection and flood management as well as development of smart grids and distributed clean power generation to provide energy security and buildings that can deal with longer, hotter summers without requiring more energy use.”

But the concept of resiliency is becoming a buzzword that animates otherwise pedestrian urban design schemes into relevant and apparently socially conscious initiatives for a more functional and healthy city. AECOM has proposed a creative resiliency plan here, but underserved communities are always wary of these code words because they often mean gentrification. Is resilience in this scheme potentially one of these words?

Many visions or plans for “resilient neighborhoods” consider only a limited number of factors in what they consider resiliency to mean for any particular neighborhood or stretch of coastline. Many advocacy groups are starting to question whether resilience in the scientific sense is enough and propose the use of the concept of “vulnerability” as a framework for understanding exactly what is at stake. 

One such plan is “Equity in Building Resilience in Adaptation Planning,” a guide produced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), that aims to “provide a guide to localities to enable them to integrate an equity lens as they seek to build resilience in designing adaptation plans.”

The NAACP report calls into question the politics behind physical resilience. They point out a long list of factors that should be considered when planning for environmental stresses on an urban area, in addition to purely engineering factors such as income/wealth, employment, literacy, education, housing stock, insurance status, and access to fresh food.

For designers, this list offers an opportunity to think beyond traditional architecture and planning modes of resilient design, and further challenge what it means to create an equitable, 21st century city—a city that is not easily definable in the face of such large environmental issues. Problematizing “resiliency” with an advanced understanding of “vulnerability” can lead to a more progressive understanding of a rapidly changing world and urban habitat at all scales. This resiliency vision for southwest Brooklyn might yet be one of these new ways of designing cities, but it needs further refinement in how it considers and represents the public.

This article was part of our Oct. 12 issue which focused on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. To explore these stories from around the U.S. and the world, click here.

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High Standards

Less regulation is no way for the U.S. to produce better architecture

In a recent Crain’s New York Business editorial dated August 7, “Make architecture great again,” architect Garo Gumusyan argued, “architecturally, America isn’t great anymore.” He cited regulation as one of two reasons for a lack of great architecture in America. Regulation, he said, causes architects to suffer because of liability, too many oversight committees, and high taxes that make great architecture impossible.

This tired argument is made over and over by those opposed to regulation. More often than not, they are champions of market-driven private industry, which they believe can innovate us out of our problems, from the economy to the healthcare system. It is a position that never seems to go away, despite decades of evidence to the contrary in Europe, Asia, and even here in the U.S.

The New York Times recently published an article that provides quantitative evidence in support of regulation. “The Path to Prosperity Is Blue,” Jacob S.Hacker and Paul Pierson’s July 30 opinion piece, argues that, according to many economic and quality of life indicators—median household income, life expectancy at birth, taxation of the top one percent, patent rate, and number of citizens with a bachelors degree or higher—traditionally “blue,” or liberal-leaning, and mostly more highly regulated states perform better on these metrics.

How does regulation affect architecture? Like Donald Trump, Gumusyan’s claim first invents some kind of “Golden Era” when architecture was “great.” I wonder what he considers “great?” It is the robber baron estates or the postwar sprawl that brought us decimated urban cores and, later, suburban strip malls?

We aren’t sure why the author would claim that architecture is not “great” today. Here at the paper, we cover important and “great” architecture projects every day. Several very good—if not great—buildings have come online just in the last two months, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center, BIG’s VIA 57 West condominium complex, (arguably) the World Trade Center Transportation Hub by Santiago Calatrava, as well as Herzog + de Meuron’s 56 Leonard, just to name a few.

It is hard to argue, as Gumusyan does, that taxes are making architecture suffer by driving up the cost of development. On the contrary, developers are chomping at the bit to develop each last plot of unused—and often used—land for the wealthiest one percent of the population. Often, these people are not even paying their fair share of taxes, let alone being burdened by them.

Condos are selling for record prices, and architecture is cited as one of the main drivers of the ultra-luxury market. And it is no coincidence that Douglas Durst will be living in the top of VIA 57 West. Regulation, especially design standards and reviews, is what would bring great architecture to the rest of us.

As for oversight, it could be argued that oversight and regulation by city agencies actually make architecture better. Amanda Burden is famous for having pressured developers into making better designs, resulting in buildings like VIA 57 West. They may otherwise have been the boring, developer-driven glass boxes that we see across New York City. It wasn’t the city that killed Frank Gehry’s Barclay’s Center—it was developer greed.

Gumusyan does rightly cite the bureaucratic shuffle as an impediment that architects must weave through—that can always be improved. David Burney and the Department of Design and Construction have made much progress in streamlining the process, which will we hope will continue to be improved under Mayor de Blasio and future administrations.

However, the author also claimed, “We are being left with blocks that blur together like rest stops on a godforsaken interstate.” It is an odd argument, as the land along the desolate stretches of the American freeway system is some of the least regulated, and thus the corresponding architecture is perhaps the ultimate expression of “freedom from regulation.” If there is a preferred site for outstanding architecture it is certainly not the highway off-ramp, but the downtowns of the U.S.’s largest and most regulated cities, like New York.

For a real test case, we would need to look to Europe. There, for the most part, everything from design to environmental standards are higher and more regulated than in this country. Norman Foster once famously said that he had been making buildings like the Hearst Tower for years in Europe. Everyday architecture there, from housing and civic buildings to urban infrastructure and parks, is of a higher quality. 

More regulation is not only good for design innovation like the step-back New York skyscraper that came from the 1916 Zoning Law, but it is also good business for architects. What is holding the U.S. back from producing great architecture is a lack of regulation, not more.

Editorial>A status quo to believe in?

In this issue, we cover a landscape of in-between spaces: divergent urban uses of public realm via Los Angeles’s Great Streets initiative, thoughtfully considered multifamily development in Santa Monica, a fresh batch of transit options in L.A., and a blending of private and public space in Seattle. If this seems like a jumbled mess, that’s because this collection of stories reflects the increasingly contested nature of West Coast urbanism. When considering the region’s pervasive homelessness crisis, increasing unaffordability, and legislative squabbles over development, we see a condition that is rooted at the nexus of two things: where we live and how we get there.

But really, this is old news. The tension between density and mobility has been a driving force in the West’s development since the colonial era, when conquistadors established El Camino Real and set up camps one day’s horse ride apart.

In today’s quest to make the West’s cities more livable, sustainable, and equitable, an effort is underway to give various modes of transportation—walking, cycling, light rail, and ridesharing—equal priority, meaning that single-occupant cars are watching their day in the sun fading in the rearview. If one argument is gaining traction, with large transit expansions planned in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle over the coming years, it’s a common sense one: that pedestrianized forms of mobility simply make for better cities. Where there is less of a reliance on cars and the space they require, people can live in smaller homes, coexist closer together, talk to one another more often, and have the time to enjoy their neighborhoods.

But only, of course, if they can afford to live in these areas in the first place. Because, simultaneously, the West is enduring a widespread shortage of rental and private homes resulting from decades of gradual downzoning and anti-density legislation that have left the region massively under-built. And whereas Los Angeles was once capable of housing 10 million people under the city’s 1960 zoning regulations, today, it can only accommodate about four million inhabitants and has been built out according to what is currently allowed. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of housing units are needed across the region to meet today’s needs, and the few talented designers who are stepping in to provide thoughtful, equitable distribution and design of those units are hampered by legislation, restrictive ordinances, or threats of litigation. Changes in zoning created this problem, and changes in zoning can help will solve it.

And when planning departments do not step in or act too slowly, state governments will act on their behalf. California’s AB1866, for example, set a new, relatively liberal statewide standard for the implementation of Accessory Dwelling Units, the small, sometimes-detached efficiency suites on otherwise single-family properties that are quietly up-zoning even the wealthiest of neighborhoods. These so-called “in-law” units, already common in working-class areas, help populations grow up and age in place, provide a landing pad for recent immigrants, and allow homeowners to earn rental income through their properties. Though this is a stop-gap solution, it is, at least, a developing front and a site of overall disruption.

Community-oriented designers can also subvert the rules. But too often, community-oriented design is impermanent or doesn’t operate at a scale widespread enough to create lasting change. There is an under-addressed middle market that designers and developers have been too hesitant to embrace. The terminus of the new Expo and the adjacent Tongva Park designed by James Corner Field Operations in Santa Monica, however, are powerfully permanent statements. Though Tongva Park opened almost two years ago, the completion of the Expo terminus and its associated intersection make for a metaphoric moment: a pedestrianized street connecting public transit to a pier over the ocean. This design, bookended by the recently selected minimalist Agence Ter and SALT-designed proposal for PershingSquare in Downtown Los Angeles, creates an east-west urban route, while Gehry Partners’ ongoing community engagement surrounding its working designs for the Los Angeles River has the potential to create an ecologically significant north-south spine.

In this election season, let’s call this slow-burning revolution the Clinton option for urbanism: ignoring calls for barbarism and perfecting the status quo to be, if nothing else, better and available to many more. Right now, that’s the best West Coast cities can hope for, and maybe it’s not so bad.

Editorial>The good fight

Chicago has a problem. It is not a new problem, but as of late it has been more apparent. For a city whose motto could just as well be Daniel Burnham’s “Make no little plans…” Chicago makes very few large plans. As a result, the city seems unable to realize any plans at all.

At the time of printing, Chicago is about to lose the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts (LMNA) to the West Coast. Aside from the conversation of putting private institutions in our public parks (NB: All of the lakefront museums are private), the entire fiasco has brought up a slew of other issues, ones that should make everyone who cares about the built environment take pause. The first is what initially set the downward spiral of the LMNA into motion: The use of the lakefront. The discussion of this one building has all too clearly highlighted the fact that we don’t talk seriously about the lakefront as the resource it actually is: A resource that was made by and for the people of Chicago. For whatever reason, a fundamentalism has arisen that the lakefront should freeze at the shape, function, and character of an artificial line reached a century ago. So often in this argument Burnham is evoked, as if he would somehow be pleased that only a small portion of his plan is complete.

The next problem highlighted by this calamity is the city’s apparent willingness to throw away what we have. Chicago has a long history of tearing down the great buildings, buildings that remind us of when it actually was a place that made big ambitious plans. After the loss of Prentice Women’s Hospital, one would think that other eccentric icons would be given some sort of respite. It is more than shortsighted to think that McCormick Place and, for that matter, the Thompson Center are not architecturally significant and worth saving. No one would argue against rethinking and refurbishing, but Chicago would not be better without them. Rather, the city would be losing two of its most unique interior gathering spaces.

Both the protection of the shoreline and the short-term economy of the city are important, but architects understand the larger implications of the built environment. “Make no little plans” resonates with Chicagoans because they can see it every day: The city has been defined by big risks and major projects. Now that same level of ambition can be directed at the betterment of the city for all: While protecting those spaces that make Chicago so unique, architects can also envision new spaces that inspire.

Architects can’t leave the grand plans to politicians. No one is more qualified or willing to imagine a better city than an architect—but you’re going to have to fight for it.

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Absent Note

Why are there (almost) no American architects at the 2016 Venice Biennale?
Alejandro Aravena, curator of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale (themed "Reporting from the Front"), claims that this 15th architecture exhibition wants to “offer a new point of view” and is about “listening to those who are able to gain perspective and are in the position to share knowledge and experiences, inventiveness and pertinence with those of us standing on the ground.” Yet except for several young Americans, there are seemingly no “new points of view” from America that address urban issues and contribute to the international debate. The lone U.S. representative is Auburn University’s Rural Studio; it takes nothing away from their profound and important contribution to say it offers little that's new or urban. The largest number of official delegates in Aravena’s Biennale comes from Europe (86), Mexico and South America (22), and rest from global developing countries. The United States has never dominated the biennale—it began as an Italian and European event—but has always had significant representatives (excluding, of course, those in the U.S. Pavilion). Aaron Betsky curated it in 2008 as well. Is Aravena (who has taught at Harvard from 2000-2005) unaware of developments in American architecture? Or does he simply believe the most exciting new ideas are emerging from developing countries? Paralleling the 2015 Art biennale, does he think it's time to focus on work from the southern hemisphere? The President of the Biennale Paolo Barrata, who has a significant presence in the formulation of biennale's direction, claims that the image of this biennale (a woman on a ladder gazing across a desert horizon) is the counterpart to the one chosen for the 2015 art biennale. That biennale—"All the World's Futures"—was curated by Okwui Enwezor. Enwezor wanted to open the event to artists in under-represented developing countries (also largely from the southern hemisphere). Barratta also claims that previous architecture biennales were “characterized by an increasing divergence between architecture and civil society” and the 2016 edition would examine whether there exist “phenomena that show trends that run in the opposite direction.” He promises this biennale seeks "positive images” of change geared toward civil society. It's worrying that the U.S. has so little influence in this global debate. Are American architects providing solutions that emerge only from our unique codes and industrialized materials? Or are the solutions offered so corporate in nature that they cannot have applications outside the developed world? A partial answer to this question might be hinted at in the 2016 U.S. pavilion; we will be reporting on that tomorrow.
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Renzo Piano’s Whitney is an architectural “tourist trap”

When the new Whitney Museum of American Art opened on Manhattan’s West Side a little over a year ago, critical reactions were mixed. Like the majority of contemporary commentary, much of the critique was aimed at the outside of the building. There was also praise for an interior that defers to the art and a bit of positivity about the views. Some gushed about how daring it was for a building to physically engage with its surroundings at ground level.

However, a year after the initial “wait and see,” it is time to call the Renzo Piano–designed Whitney building what it really is: An architectural tourist trap. It is the conceptual built equivalent of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar (GAKB) in Times Square.

What does a tourist trap do? Like any good tourist trap, the Whitney relies too much on its surroundings. The site at the apex of the High Line along the Hudson River is one of the best in the city. An architect would have to try hard to not have great views. Putting a few couches along floor-to-ceiling windows is not a world-class experience—most locals can get sixth-floor views from a friend’s roof or balcony. Like GAKB in Times Square, the Whitney has such a good location for its purpose that it doesn’t actually need to do anything to attract visitors. It is just there, housing an awkward collection of early modern art—good Hoppers and mediocre Ruschas.

Because it is a tourist trap, it also doesn’t need to inspire anyone to come back. What about this museum makes us want to visit again? We come for Piano, much like diners come for Guy. At GAKB, there is not decadent, diner-inspired food, only limp lettuce and uninspiring Caesar dressing. At the Whitney, where are Piano’s poetic details? Where is the tectonic novelty? What happened to the inventive, integrated systems and materials? The Whitney is all of the bad things about Piano’s work: It is washed-out and soulless, without any of the Piano magic. How can we connect to it?

The outdoor spaces seem arbitrarily proportioned and like afterthoughts. We might find the under-designed railings at an institutional building or a second-rate theme park. The oft-heard excuse is that this is part of the industrial heritage of the site, and is meant to evoke being on a fire escape. Yes, beloved industrial buildings and fire escapes have fine characteristics—materiality, the patina and layers of time, spatial experiences with compression, release, and difficult corners, and odd juxtapositions of railings and stairs—the Whitney has none of these. Instead, it is all out of scale, sterile, and unengaging.

The tourist trap analogy is not one of immediate political context. Yes, many of the visitors to the Whitney are tourists. But the point is that the building has nothing to offer beyond its celebrity status.

Deferring to the art is not an excuse. What if the Four Seasons had “deferred” to the food? What if the Ford Foundation had “deferred” to people working? An off-the-shelf metal shed can do a fine job protecting farm equipment, but isn’t the landscape better off with some actual design? The condos on the Williamsburg waterfront are amazing places to hang out, cook, and enjoy the views. It doesn’t mean they are great architecture.

Connecting with the city and functioning properly should be baseline requirements of a building, not something to hold up as great architecture. We should demand more exciting design and value it as part of the gesamtkunstwerk of a museum: art, architecture, and city in harmony to create a place, as well as an experience. Manhattan already has a problem with stale homogeneity; we need to demand that architects and clients not contribute to it. After all, no one ever said it was form or function.

Editorial>A modest public-private urbanism

When higher levels of government find themselves gridlocked, city mayors often step in. After a long era of austerity and federal- and state- level obstructionism, now-booming urban cores have turned to experimenting with private capital when they pursue experimental urban projects. This phenomenon has resulted in projects like the High Line in New York City as well as the current expansion to SFMOMA previewed in this issue. These grand urban gestures aim to rebrand neighborhoods through the activation of shared open space, space that is funded by a variety of business interests aimed at reaching the pocketbooks of an ever more urban-minded consumer.

This also leads to projects like FaB Park in Los Angeles, a two-acre programmed public park planned at the intersections of First and Broadway across the street from LA’s historic City Hall and beside Rios Clementi Hale’s lauded Grand Park. The City of Angeles recently released finalists from the invited competition aimed at designing the park, with Mia Lehrer (in collaboration with OMA), Eric Owen Moss, AECOM, Brooks+Scarpa, and Bay Area landscape architect Walter Hood going head-to-head. The proposals are impressive in their complexity and specificity, with various approaches taken to fulfilling the city’s desire for a Millennium Park-style addition to Los Angeles’s kit of New Urbanist ephemera. As a result, the proposals suffer under the yoke of being designed through a game of Mad Libs: Urban Park Edition, such as the FaB brief:

Every (urban) park needs a large (sculptural component) containing a (restaurant), plus space to (exhibit) works of (art) and (architecture), all of which are (shaded) by giant (fake trees) because we’re in (Los Angeles).

This is a great model for a park, but can only work as part of a larger system of equivalent parks spread out across L.A.’s reaches because of its low-slung, monocultural expanse. FaB park should be the first in a new city-wide parks system that blends nature, leisure, and retail in diverse, exciting ways. I can imagine neighborhood identities coalescing around such spaces, such that taking a trip to any park would yield a unique experience. This emerald tapestry should allow already territorial neighborhoods to take control of new patches of open space and control their respective architectural manifestation. The sticky situations that result from the ensuing tensions over public and private spheres would play out over the space of the city, with local solutions, and appropriate responses, creating a vehicle for the ongoing critical debate over the nature of the city here.

The problem is that FaB Park is a one-off scheme; one park with a bad name and a misguided vision.

The competition neither fulfills its own mandate for producing “distinctive design approaches” for urban parks nor does it take the notion that economic self-determination makes good public space to a logical end. For one, a 200 seat restaurant component is simply far too big and can only result in another foothold for expensive taste and conspicuous consumption in a site defined by cultural and civic symbolism. Danny Meyer’s success with Shake Shack in Madison Square Park is an easy precedent to reach for, except Meyer’s stand, a 400 square foot shed in a 6.5-acre park, is very different from the proposed 8,500 plus square foot structures for FaB Park’s two-acre site. Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t it obscene to designate this swatch as a pleasure palace?

Here’s a better plan: plant groves of trees in a grid across the site. Populate these groves with a mix of native and adopted trees, the requirement being that their water use be moderate and that they grow tall. That’s it. LA will then have a place for solemn reflection and politicking in the shadow of City hall, an unprogrammed public space that blends the Tuleries in Paris with Berlin’s Under-Den-Linden.

We can shop in any part of the city. What is being proposed here is just another New Urbanist knock-off. We might as well just follow a more traditional path and go full Victorian.

Editorial>New practices

If the stories in this newspaper are at all an indication of what is happening in Midwest architecture (I certainly hope they are) than this year is looking to be transformative for firms of all sizes. As the economy recovers, cranes continue to rise above the skylines, and architects are beginning to see the fruits of their labor in physical form for what feels like the first time in a long time. As many offices, and cities for that matter, move out of the survival mode the recession enforced, they are able to not just build, but to explore what else they can do with architecture.

The most apparent sign of the changing building climate always seems to be towers. As nervous economists count cranes to try and predict economic turns, city officials laud the development as the much-needed growth that has been stunted for three-quarters of a decade. In Milwaukee, a cluster of towers and new civic spaces are changing the way the city looks and works. It is undeniable that downtown Milwaukee needs a shot in the arm, and those that are able and interested are betting on these new developments to do just that.    

Yet for Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, a new project coming together in the Chicago suburbs is bucking the perception that it is just a supertall building practice. The project is a church that maintains many of the signature forms and curves of an AS+GG building—there is little doubt that it will make visitors look up, but for very different reasons than usual.   

Other, smaller firms are looking to teach some old buildings new tricks. JGMA and bKL are updating one of Chicago’s oldest housing projects. This plan is in stark contrast to the usual wrecking ball fate of most public housing in the city. Kansas City–based el dorado, on the other hand, saved a centuries-old structure with a new art space in a decidedly unexpected location. On a larger scale, Wheeler Kearns is breaking new ground converting a food plant in to an urban art space and museum.

From an academic perspective, 50 Chicago firms are taking a speculative look across the entire city for an upcoming exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Alternative practice BairBalliet is taking a similar look at Detroit as part of the upcoming Venice Biennale. Among those projects, the Vernacular Building Forums and accompanying book, Out of the Loop: Vernacular Architecture Forum Chicago, as well as a new survey of the oft-forgotten 20th century architect Benjamin Marshall, it is clear that our understanding of the city is continuing to evolve.

I would be remiss though if I didn’t mention the passing of Dame Zaha Hadid. With both of her finished U.S. projects being in the Midwest—the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Arts in Cincinnati and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in East Lansing, Michigan—she too was interested in exploring what architecture could be in the Midwest. On her last visit to Chicago five months ago, she spoke about her hope to build in the Midwest again, if only for the light, which she found so beautiful. 

We don’t live in the same world we did before 2008, and it would seem that both architects and clients are realizing what this means for our field. No longer bound to taking every opportunity just to survive, practices are looking at diverse opportunities as the basis for practice. And though it is still difficult to predict what the next year will bring, I think it is fair to say that we can count on seeing interesting new projects in some unexpected places.

Editorial>Reporting from two fronts

Recently architecture has taken a social turn, with grassroots, designer-as-activist work becoming the field’s most talked about sector. The theme for the 2016 Venice Biennale, opening in late May, is “Reporting from the Front,” and it will feature socially conscious work from practitioners around the world. Curator Alejandro Aravena likens the struggle to improving daily life on a battlefield. The show picks up, in some ways, what the Chicago Architecture Biennial started: socially engaged, often local interventions.

While this seems like it is all for the best, it comes with baggage, including—ironically—the hagiographies and moral dogma similar to its antithesis, modernism.

Additionally, these endemic remediations are often criticized for being only slightly effective, or a “band-aid on a sucking chest wound,” as critic Rory Hyde once quipped. This type of work certainly brings about a parallel discussion about the agency of design. Is architecture really effective as activism? Or is it just relevant and interesting art?

Architecture alone cannot address the structural problems that the world faces. Improving our built environment for a more just society is a two-front war. On the one hand is the liberal pragmatism of activist architecture, and on the other is the more extreme possibility of policy change.

For example, a debate surfaced online around a competition called “Building The Border Wall.” Twitter outrage followed, as many people felt that there should be “NO WALL.” This hardline ideological approach—architects should not engage with walls because this makes them complicit with state violence—builds on legitimate, preexisting anti-wall sentiments from Berlin to Gaza.

But in this instance, does the “NO WALL” protest accomplish anything? As Ronald Rael, associate professor at University of California, Berkeley and author of the forthcoming book, Borderwall as Architecture, notes in an online feature at, there are already 700 miles of wall on the border, creating a terrible scenario that divides cities, ecological zones, and even a college. The barrier creates a zone of exclusion, division, and violence, but it also has political support from both sides. Some in the United States want to keep out people and drugs, while some in Mexico want to keep out American guns.

Does simply saying “NO WALL” and refusing to engage with the pressing issues at hand paradoxically make us even less resistant to the realities of the situation? Perhaps the real solution is to engage architecturally with the physical reality and attempt to change the structural policy problems through the places where we can make more change: lobbying congress, drafting policy alternatives, or joining one of many grassroots immigration organizations. The architecture of the wall (or lack thereof) is only as good as the policy supporting it. This two-front approach could work by mitigating a terrible situation through design, while fighting for real structural change in the long term. These two fronts do not necessarily contradict one another.

Homelessness offers a similar conundrum. Do we simply refuse to design for the current crisis of homelessness because that implies that we are supporting the policies causing it? Can one believe in the right to full, dignified housing for all and still attempt to make clever (if often insulting) solutions that would allow the homeless to sleep under a roof, no matter how small or temporary? Is it possible to approach this issue with a two-front strategy of short-term design solutions, and a real, long-term advocacy for true affordable housing that allows every person access to a climate-controlled space with natural light and running water?

Mayor de Blasio’s recently approved zoning proposals should offer some relief for New Yorkers who feel increasingly excluded from the city. “Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning” and “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” are two zoning text amendments that aim to create or preserve some 200,000 units of affordable housing across the five boroughs. This law may not be perfect—it won’t radically transform the city into an egalitarian utopia overnight—but it can certainly get the ball rolling, as long as we continue to fight for more affordability and public space.

At its core, architecture is complicit with all sorts of bad things: gentrification, reification of power, gaudy inequality, and even violence. Perhaps the way that architecture has the most impact is alleviating the worst political realities (on the first front), while also making the invisible visible to open up critique and (on the second front) help enact real policy change. 

Editorial>What's next for the West

I grew up surrounded by the quotidian environment of Los Angeles’s working-class San Fernando Valley. The endless tract homes, parking lots, and freeways felt incongruous with the diversity of cultures and people otherwise present. When I became inspired to study architecture, it was mostly so I could travel, see the rest of the world, and live as others do. I moved back to Los Angeles last year to find my hometown completely in the grips of massive change. As I settle into my new position as the west editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, I finally have occasion to stop and consider the nature of that change in the context of the West, overall.

In my time away, I realized that L.A. and the West have never really revolved around architecture. We have immersive landscapes, massive skies, idyllic weather, and lower economic barriers to cross than some of our East Coast counterparts, but lifestyles guide what and how people do things here, not necessarily buildings.

Partially as a result of this prevailing mindset, serious issues like prolonged drought, economic disparity, and access to housing plague the West’s urban regions. You could say these are problems in every major American city—and you would be right—but in the West, sprawl and natural resources collide in particular, peculiar ways, of which, Los Angeles is emblematic. However, a growing sense of urban, civic, and personal awareness is beginning to lead toward collective action aimed at solving some these issues.

For example, in November 2008, nearly 68 percent of Los Angeles County residents voted in favor of Measure R, which increased the county sales tax to fund new transit projects region wide. Two light rail lines have been added to the existing system since then and two more are on the way. In May, the second and final phase of the Metro’s Expo Line will be complete, finally connecting Downtown to the beach at Santa Monica. Along with the physical transit increase, Measure R has also ushered in a new mindset for Angelenos, causing our expectations of this place and ourselves to shift. People are now willing to pay for a more geographically inclusive and connected region. As a result, transit-oriented development has become de rigueur and the city is quickly hybridizing its outdated suburban sprawl with high-density, urban-oriented infrastructure.

A reinvigorated youth-fueled art culture takes advantage of these new transportation options: Weekends in the city are becoming endurance events where traveling via multimodal transit is the new norm. Established art repositories like LACMA and MOCA have expanded. The Broad and Hauser Wirth & Schimmel have finally opened. And the burgeoning design scenes in Downtown’s Arts District, Hollywood, and Culver City have merged with an array of DIY art spaces to create a true creative network.

A flourishing urban ecosystem is collaborative. Ridesharing is making living here without a car possible while putting more people in the unusual position of having to share a car with strangers—perhaps decreasing the amount of personal space we all feel we need. Commuters on the metro might not know which side of the escalator to stand on yet, but it is undeniable that what is happening in the popular Los Angeles imaginary is a transition from that of me and you to a nascent form of us.

Whether you consider the skyline, the metro, or so many of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, much in L.A. is a work in progress. It is incredibly educational and exciting to have the opportunity to cover this transformation via The Architect’s Newspaper and to do so also with an eye toward how that transformation plays out across the West overall. In taking up this new endeavor, I hope to track how the changing nature of West Coast urbanism impacts design and vice versa. It might be too early to celebrate the new West, but it is always a good time to feel hopeful. It’s good to be home!

Editorial>Saving architecture

This is my first stand-alone issue as Midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. For those of you who have been following along, I have been in this position for around four months. In that time I have been writing, meeting, and talking about architecture with a wide range of practitioners and academics in the Midwest and beyond. And though I came to the paper with strong positions on many architectural subjects, I quickly found that to be a voice for a particular field or a particular region, I would have to do more listening than talking. What I have been hearing the most is that though the industry is finally recovering, many architects have concerns that reach far beyond just building.

“Saving architecture” can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To some it means literally saving our built world, either from demolition or simply disrepair. Perhaps nowhere has a more sordid past with this concept than Chicago. The list of seminal buildings that have been razed sometimes feels as though it will overtake the list of those that still stand. Large swaths of Chicago are interlaced with the level of disrepair one would never expect in a modern city. Yet at the same time, there is hope. With Marina City’s recent landmark designation architects around the world can breathe a sigh of relief. On the South Side, the Sweet Water foundation is transforming a handful of old abandoned buildings into aquaponic fish farms, creating highly productive sources of food and community.

The other saving architecture is the architecture that serves. And perhaps there is no bigger debate in contemporary architecture than the discussion of who and how architecture serves. In the Graham Foundation’s current exhibition, Architecture of Independence: African Modernism, we get a look at architecture so grand, it is charged with nothing less than defining the independence of post-colonial Africa. In our last issue we spoke with Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León, the curators of the U.S. Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. Though they have no illusions of architecture being the ultimate problem solver, this year’s entire biennale is particularly focused on just that. This month, we speak with Detroit Resists, a group that is intent on challenging the architectural system it believes is having the very opposite effect of saving anyone.

This discussion will surely continue as long as there is architecture to be saved and people who could maybe use more architecture in their lives. I am very interested to hear what you, our readers, think about all of this. And I’m even more interested to hear what you think is important that I might be missing.