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It's the TARP, Stupid

While billings (yellow) continued their downward decline in January, inquiries (green) saw a nice bounce, the first in months.
The Architect's Newspaper

After a brief uptick in December, the AIA’s Architecture Billings Index slipped again in January, settling in at a new record low and continuing a larger six-month decline that began in September. Inquiries showed a marked improvement, however, possibly in concert with discussions of infrastructure spending generated by the stimulus bill, though of course that was not finalized—with somewhat unimpressive construction spending—until this week.

AIA chief economist Kermit Baker suggested as much in a press release accompanying the billings numbers on Wednesday, though he also saw a far greater problem constraining the industry: the continued freeze within the credit markets. “Now that the stimulus bill has passed and includes funding for construction projects, as well as for municipalities to raise bonds, business conditions could improve,” he said. “That said, until we can get a clearer sense of credit lines being made available by banks, it will be hard to gauge when a lot of projects that have been put on hold can get back online.”

In other words, for all the attention architects and the architectural media (AN included) have paid to the stimulus bill the president signed on Monday, the real salvation will most likely come from TARP, and its big brother, the Financial Stability and Recovery Plan.

(For the record, billings fell to 33.3 from 36.4 while inquiries rose to 43.5 from 37.7. Regionally, the Northeast shed 4.6 points to hit 29.8, the Midwest and South each lost about one to 34.6 and 34.4, respectively, and the West gain 1.5 points to 38.3. For the sectors, multi-family residential work held roughly stable, losing half-a-point to hit 29.5, commercial/industrial gained 5.7 to 33.8, while institutional fell 2.2 to 37.1, mixed use 5.5 to 39.6.)

“There are large parts of the stimulus that will go to public works that won’t be going to architects necessarily, like road and water treatment facilities and the so-called smart grid,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America. “Transportation and high-speed rail will provide some work, but for architects, the real recovery will come from the financial markets.” (A prime example of the former is the MTA’s commitment to build the Grimshaw- and James Carpenter-designed aboveground portion of the Fulton Street Transit Center.)

Simonson said that the part of the stimulus bill that will benefit architects is not the part that they think—the brick-and-mortar projects—but softer measures like tax breaks that may help restore consumer demand and lead to new projects. “The emphasis on stimulus is probably right in the sense that it will help the economy weather this downturn,” Simonson said. “But not in the sense that it will put money into the hands of architects, at least not in the way it will for construction workers.”

But this also means that other measures, like the $275 billion foreclosure package, could have an impact beyond the one architects might think. Given that most designers do not work on tract homes in suburban Phoenix, the program would seem to have little effect. But Richard Rosan, president of the Urban Land Institute, said the money is more far-reaching than that. “If you don’t get the lending back, the real estate development business is done,” he said. “If you can’t borrow, you can’t build, and if you can’t refinance, then you’re in terrible trouble with your existing buildings. Both TARP and the foreclosure plan will help fix these problems, albeit slowly.”

And financing has been a problem for some time already. The AIA, in preparing the billings index, surveys dozens of architects in the country each month. In addition to asking about their business, they pose a specific question. Back in September, it was “What is the most serious problem facing your firm?” The resounding answer, at 63 percent of firms, was client problems with project financing, followed by allied issues related to the overall financial turmoil, though that took only 19 percent.

“What we’re hearing from a lot of our people is that a lot of projects are ready to go and they just can’t go forward because they can’t get the financing,” said Jennifer Riskus, the AIA’s manager for economic research. Perhaps an architectural stimulus, separate from the all-important credit vehicles currently in the works, should be in order.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Obama administration's foreclosure program cost $750 billion. AN regrets the error.

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On the Right Track?
Yesterday afternoon in Denver, Colorado, President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law. The process of doling out the spoils begins, as we wait, and hope, for the desired economic recovery. One piece of good news for urbanites and green transportation advocates, the bill includes $8 billion for high-speed rail, according to Politico. Additional funding is expected at $1 billion annually for the next five years, through the normal budgetary stream. This represents a major increase in high speed rail funding. Last year, President Bush authorized $1.5 billion in high speed rail funding through 2013. Reportedly, Transportation Secretary Lahood has 60 days to plan how and where the funds will be spent. The rail funding is a special priority for President Obama, according to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. “I put it in there for the president,” Emanuel told Politico. “The president wanted to have a signature issue in the bill, his commitment for the future.” The rail-heavy Northeast and the planned California high-speed corridor seem like obvious recipients. Doubtless some in Chicago, and the down state Illinois district Lahood previously represented, will push for a Midwest hub and spoke-shaped system centered in Chicago. While architects do not typically design rail corridors, they do design stations, like this Calatrava-designed TGV station in Lyon, and transit oriented developments. Wouldn't it be nice to buy your Acela tickets in surroundings like this? UPDATE: The Huffington Post has a link to a 2002 Federal Railroad Administration map showing possible high-speed corridors. Which lines will make the cut?

Recession Tales: Harry Cobb
With this conversation at his home office on January 31 with Harry Cobb, a founder of Pei Cobb Freed, AN  launches a series of interviews with architects from different generations talking about their own day-to-day career experiences with downturns in the past. Cobb, now 82, was born during the Great Depression. He based his decision to become an architect on a trip abroad for which his mother managed to save by entering the real estate market. The Architect’s Newspaper: What was the economic situation when you first started working as an architect? Harry Cobb: I graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design 60 years ago and immediately went to work. It was 1948 and I have worked ever since, but I can’t say I know much about downturns and I don’t think my experience is atypical for an architect. According to Wikipedia, there have been eight recessions in the years I’ve been in practice—the first one was 1953–54—and those recessions have occupied 12 of those 60 years. But if you ask me what I remember about them, I’d say not much, because they simply didn’t register in my recollections by comparison with what I would call the vicissitudes, the highs and lows, of practice, which in my case have not even been related to recessions. When, if ever, did you become aware of the boom-bust cycle in building? In the early years, our work was driven by our relationship with William Zeckendorf, Sr. He was an imaginative, energetic, and ambitious developer, and I.M. Pei, Jim Freed, and I worked for him as in-house architects for about ten years. (I.M. had been a critic at the GSD when I was a student.) Zeckendorf was an extraordinarily ambitious entrepreneur and risk-taker. He ultimately went bankrupt, but that was after we had already branched off and established an independent practice. The only period I can recall that the profile of our practice was driven by a downturn was in the 1973–74 recession. It was a big one, and the first to last more than a year. That was the recession that took our firm to Iran. We were active there for four to five years until the revolution, and fortunately, we weren’t working for the government but for private developers. We were also busy because I.M. was in the middle of the East Building for the National Gallery of Art in D.C., which was a very high-profile project. But you can’t sustain a practice on one project, no matter how high-profile. We considered ourselves fortunate when we were approached by those developers from Iran. But interestingly, what I remember most about Iran is not so much about the projects—none of them got built—but about going to Isfahan and Persepolis to see the splendid buildings. In any case, Pei and Freed were more involved with those jobs, and I was just stopping over on my way to a major mixed-use project I was working on in Melbourne, Australia, called Collins Place, which was well underway. But don’t attach too much importance to Iran, it just happened to be where we turned when things dried up here. Did that first experience condition you somehow to try to prepare for the next one? If you’re asking if we felt at risk, I would have to say architects are always at risk. I’ve never known a time since I came to New York when I did not feel we were at risk. I don’t think you can enter into architecture if you don’t have a tolerance for risk, especially if what you are interested in is the art of architecture, not the business. How do you cope? After a while, you realize the sky isn’t really falling and you just live with it. Every practice inevitably has periods of great financial risk—and these may not have to do with recessions. I associate risk instead with projects that were poorly managed, and led us to lose a lot of money—although they might be the same ones that launched our reputation. Sometimes I feel our practice has raised bad management to an art form! What are the events that have shaped your experience? This recession is by far the worst since the Great Depression and is undoubtedly going to register. But the other eight I could not describe as very significant events in my life. The significant events—both for good and bad—related more to what was going on in the practice. No recession could possibly leave a mark on one’s psyche as deep as the problems encountered with the John Hancock Tower [in Boston], or when we spent six years doing a complete overhaul of Kennedy Airport and on the day we finished 900 drawings, the project was canceled. And it was not because of a downturn but because of politics. Those disappointments are much more vivid in my mind. How did the Hancock catastrophe, as you called it, impact your firm? A few years after that episode we were in a sense blacklisted by developers and corporations. We were aware our practice was badly hurt—it was on the front page around the world with these horrible pictures of plywood on the windows. We were considered not safe and that came closer than anything to jeopardizing our existence. But after four or five years, there was a kind of reversal when people said: If those guys are still around, they must be doing something right because they should be dead right now. And we retained the confidence of our clients through the whole episode. In a sense that is the most important achievement of my life—getting that building finished in a way that was not compromised. Did you develop strategies along the way for recovering from setbacks? We’ve never had a strategy, no one has ever gone out on the road to promote work, we’ve just responded to opportunities. We spend a lot of time, of course, in the process of getting work through interviews and, increasingly, through competitions. We’re involved in three major ones right now. We have been fortunate: I wouldn’t call it luck, and you just can’t tell what’s going to come in over the transom. The main thing we’ve always known—you might call it a hedge—is pursuing diversity, both geographically and in types of work. That has always helped to protect us against the collapse of any one sector. How do you feel about this time around? Like all architects, we’re apprehensive, but not in a panic. Partly it’s just a matter of experience. If you live in a profession as long as I have and you are always at risk, you get accustomed to living at the edge of disasters. Someone once told me, or maybe I said it myself: Who speaks of success? Survival is all. And I completely believe that.

Show MTA the Money

Like the rest of the city, the recent boom years have been good to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, leading to shiny new buses, trains, and megaprojects. But now, with the fifth-largest debt load in the country and the state out of money, the authority is on the verge of jumping the tracks, right into territory it has not seen since the 1970s.

The problem we’re in is the perfect storm of major dedicated taxes all drying up at once,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director at Transportation Alternatives. “The gas tax, the bridge tolls, the real estate tax, the sales tax—they’ve all gone dry. Plus, the MTA’s debt has exploded over the last two years.”

The result is a $1.2 billion hole in the authority’s operating budget, and a potential $20 billion shortfall in the forthcoming $30 billion 2010–2015 capital plan. The press has called it the “Doomsday Budget,” because, short of new revenue streams, it will lead to massive service cuts and fare and toll increases throughout the system.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the $1 billion payment for Hudson Yards was pushed back a year, following a February 4 agreement between the authority and developer the Related Companies. Meanwhile, Forest City Ratner has yet to secure financing for the $100 million it owes on the Atlantic Yards project.

On the bright side, the city’s Congressional delegation has secured between $1.5 billion and $2 billion for the agency in the House stimulus bill, with possibly more to come from the Senate. And, in an act of confidence or hubris, the authority earmarked $497 million on January 30 to complete the Fulton Street Transit Center, designed by Grimshaw and James Carpenter, before the package was even finalized.

It’s enough to make even the steadiest straphanger’s head spin.

“If we don’t solve this problem, we’re shortchanging the economy right now, when we can hardly afford to, and for decades to come,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. He said that as the city has learned in the past, even a year or two of disinvestment can take decades to reverse. Fortunately, the MTA agrees wholeheartedly. “This is probably the most difficult landscape the MTA has faced in a generation,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

And yet the recession could prove, in some small way, to be the authority’s salvation. Given the dire state of the economy, many politicians appear willing to entertain once-heretical notions. Take the mayor’s congestion pricing plan. It was initially sold as a measure to reduce congestion and pollution, but was ultimately defeated by the state legislature because, in its members’ view, the real purpose was to fund mass transit. Newer proposals, however, such as those put forward by former MTA chair Richard Ravitch—East River bridge tolls, payroll taxes, slightly increased fares and tolls—avoid the bait-and-switch and go right for the money.

Norvell said that compared to last year, the tone in Albany is “markedly different,” with almost no complaints about the payroll tax and a surprising openness to East River bridge tolls. “Oddly enough, the financial crisis has created a lot of political breathing room,” he said. “We’re looking at $2.50 MetroCards, $100 monthlies. Nobody wants his fingerprints on that.”

It will likely be late March before we know whether it is Doomsday or V-Day for the MTA. The federal stimulus package must first be passed, though even that would be but a few nickels in the bucket. From there, it should take a month for the legislature to either endorse Ravitch’s plan, adopt an alternative, or let the MTA go forward with its cuts, which the authority’s board approved in December. Given the state’s budget woes, that remains a distinct possibility.

Transit advocates remained heartened despite the MTA’s predicament. “I have reason to believe it will pass, given my conversations with people in both houses,” Yaro said of the Ravitch plan. Norvell believes the legislature owes it to the MTA. “The system’s been starved by Albany for the last decade,” he said. “The ball is in their court. We hope they make the right play.”

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Built for the People of the United States
The Triborough Bridge was built in 1936 with $44.2 million from the Public Works Administration.
Jet Lowe/Courtesy Library of Congress

In 1931, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat in on a roundtable conversation with the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, RPAA members including Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye, and Clarence Stein presented the future president with a powerful argument that fallout from the economic collapse of 1929 might be best attacked by following a “new road” of regional planning at a national scale. The governor seemed sympathetic to their ideas, and helped MacKaye launch his ambitious plans for the Appalachian Trail, which began in New York State.

Two years later, when FDR began the historic 100 days of legislation that kicked off the New Deal, the RPAA’s lobbying seemed to have paid off. Roosevelt placed MacKaye in a planning position with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and selected Stein’s partner, Robert Kohn, as the first head of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA). But while the RPAA’s progressive goals were embodied in these programs, as the New Deal wore on, its idealism and the scale of its ambition became muddled through political compromises.


The Greenbelt Town program, which was supposed to change the face of America with a series of highly rational garden cities, was whittled down to three small projects. And the TVA’s initial steps toward creating a “dynamic regional and interregional economy” were soon shed by its director, Arthur Morgan, who steered the authority toward becoming merely a source of electricity for the industrializing south. This tension—between those with plans to use government action and money to transform the country and those who prefer a more laissez-faire approach focused purely on temporary job creation—is very much alive today as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) works its way through Congress. Like today’s stimulus package, the New Deal started as a jobs-creation program, but it gave rise to profound changes in the landscape and culture that were a natural outgrowth of the era’s newfound belief in the federal government’s ability to play a transformational role. As we debate what many call “the New New Deal,” the lessons of the 1930s remind us that a focus on job creation need not preclude a commitment to the broader progressive agenda that made the New Deal so far-reaching.

The New Deal’s largest and best-known agency, the one that became synonymous with the entire program, was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Enacted in 1935, it received more money and attention than any other of the Roosevelt administration’s initiatives. By 1941, the WPA had spent approximately $11.4 billion ($169 billion in today’s money). Of this massive investment, $4 billion went to highway and street projects; $1 billion to public buildings; $1 billion to publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion that funded initiatives as varied as school lunch programs, the famous Federal Writers Project, and sent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans out to document the American landscape. By the time it was disbanded by Congress in 1943 as a result of the manufacturing boom created by World War II, the WPA had provided some eight million jobs and had left its mark on nearly every community in America by way of a park, bridge, housing project, or municipal building.

in 1935, the Public works administration allocated $5 million for the original brooklyn college campus.
courtesy brooklyn college

The magnitude of the change created by the WPA’s modernization program was unprecedented among direct federal interventions, and the current recovery bill has the potential to be as, or more, effective. At this writing, ARRA promises $825 billion in economic stimulus, $275 billion of which is tax cuts and $550 billion of which is actual investment. Much of this $550 billion will go to construction projects to bring America’s flagging schools, health care facilities, and infrastructure up to standard and beyond. A recent analysis of the bill from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the following run-down on infrastructure spending: $30 billion for highways, $9 billion for transit, $1.1 billion for Amtrak, $10 billion for science facilities, $3 billion for airports. The list goes on, including appropriations for clean water and restoration of brownfields, but also money for other architecture-related building work: $16 billion for school modernization, $9 billion for Department of Defense projects like VA hospitals and child care centers, and $2.25 billion for rehabilitating public housing.

While the rough balance of funds in the current bill and the WPA evinces a kinship, they will be disbursed in a very different fashion. Harry Hopkins, FDR’s handpicked director of the WPA, worked directly with the states to evaluate and select projects. Other agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), also had their own directors, their own budgets, and the power to choose how best to spend them. The money in the current stimulus package will be apportioned to the states not through newly created agencies based in D.C.— as was the case in the 1930s—but by existing formulas. These formulas evaluate the needs of various localities by calculating factors that range from demographics, to income levels, to official reports on structures and efficiencies. The formulas have the benefit of distributing funds by objective measures rather than political ones, as goes one criticism of the WPA. However, these measures change little from year to year, and a formula-based system has done little to address infrastructure failings at a regional or even national scale.

the 1940 segment of manhattan's east river drive, sketched by hugh ferriss, received a pwa grant for $4.8 million.
from east river drive (federal works agency. 1940)

What has not changed between now and then is the imperative to choose projects that are ready to start construction immediately. What we might call “shovel-ready” projects were a big part of the WPA agenda, and there were a number of regional plans in place, notably those developed by Robert Moses in New York, that captured an enormous share of federal funds. By 1936, New York City was receiving one seventh of the WPA allotment for the entire country, employed 240,000 people with this money, and was considered “the 49th state” within the WPA. Meanwhile other municipalities floundered in their attempts to draw up plans, and the WPA canceled more than 100 major grants to 11 northeast cities because the blueprints for those projects were not ready. Today’s analog is the “Use it or Lose it” provision in the bill that demands the return of funds if they are not put to work within 120 days. Because of this urgency, many are wary that we will spend $100 billion filling potholes.

There are a few significant projects in New York that promise to make a real difference to the region. One is Access to the Region’s Core, or the ARC tunnel, which will improve transportation between New Jersey and Manhattan. East Side Access, a project that will do the same thing for commuters coming from Long Island, is already under construction, but in dire need of funds. The same can be said for the MTA’s 2nd Avenue Subway project. And then there’s the Fulton Street Transit Center, which promised to become a central element of downtown’s redevelopment before the MTA’s own parlous financial situation put it in jeopardy. These projects, which stand to receive substantial stimulus funding, will undoubtedly improve transportation in the New York region and lay the groundwork for increased demand in the future. But what about transportation between New York and Boston, or New York and Chicago? What about developing a framework for wind power in the tri-state area? What about a comprehensive plan for regional watershed management?

the new deal's heroic ambition is exemplified by the tennessee valley authority's norris dam, completed in 1936.

There is no agency to think about the changing infrastructure needs of the country as a whole. In 2007, a bill was put forth to do just this: The Infrastructure Investment Bank Act would have established a national institution to evaluate project proposals and assemble investment portfolios to pay for them, much like the World Bank does on a global level. The fact that it did not pass Congress speaks to a reluctance in the U.S. to put planning power in the hands of the federal government—the same reluctance that the RPAA came up against in the 1930s.

One of Roosevelt’s first acts of the New Deal, an act some say he first mentioned at that RPAA roundtable meeting in Virginia, was the creation of the TVA. This ambitious project targeted the poorest part of the country, the one hardest hit by the Depression, and took it upon itself to modernize and reinvigorate it. Through a comprehensive regimen of education and infrastructure building—including the construction of 29 hydroelectric dams and even the building of one town—the TVA turned this rural backwater into the nation’s biggest producer of electricity, and one of the backbones of mobilization during WWII. Though it faced determined opposition, and proposals to implement similar regional plans were shot down across the country, the TVA stands as a high water mark.

After the Interstate Highways Act of 1956, the federal government covered 90 percent of costs for road construction, like the 1963 Alexander Hamilton Bridge.
Jack Boucher/COurtesy Library of Congress

The only time in American history that the federal government has been able to enact a national plan was through the Federal Highway Act of 1956, a project whose skeleton was drafted by the NRA during the Depression. While many today dispute the merit of this program, it is instructive to note that the only way Eisenhower was able to sell the highway act to the country was by declaring it vital to national security.

Today we face not nuclear Armageddon but a danger that could, in the long run, prove all the more crippling: our national infrastructure on the brink of collapse. It seems time to draft our own “new road,” one designed not just to pull us out of economic crisis, but also to lay the groundwork that will carry us undiminished into the future.

Q&A: LA Urban Design Studio

Launched in 2006 by LA planning director Gail Goldberg, the Urban Design Studio was created to address the city’s lack of urban design standards and to create a more pedestrian-friendly city. The small studio, headed by planners Emily Gabel-Luddy, and Simon Pastucha has already spearheaded the recent creation and approval of a set of Downtown Street & Urban Design Standards and Guidelines, which encourages wider sidewalks (at least 15 feet on some downtown blocks) and the possibility of street life, and a set of Walkability Guidelines. The Architect’s Newspaper sat down with the duo to discuss these, as well as their most ambitious endeavor: 11 Urban Design Principles, a set of values to which developers would be required to subscribe when seeking entitlements.

The principles range from “reinforce walkability and well-being” to “nurture neighborhood character” to “bridge the past and the future.” They are intended as “the first step to the creation of great streets, open spaces, and a more livable city.” If adopted by the City Council, these principles will be included in the city’s general plan, become part of the findings required for any discretionary action by the city, and eventually be interwoven in the 35 community plans throughout the city. The Planning Commission will consider them within the next two months.

AN: The truth underlying the Urban Design Principles is that all the great cities of the world came into being based on the human scale and prior to the advent of automobiles, and it’s the design studio’s intent to focus back to the human scale. Give me a practical example of what sort of implementation that might entail.

Emily Gabel-Luddy: Let me go to the Street Standards in Downtown Los Angeles. It was our goal that the city move away from an auto-centric proposition to one that emphasizes the pedestrian and mass transit. And so we spearheaded the idea of 15-foot-minimum-wide sidewalks in the dense urban core of our city. The reason this is so significant is because it lets all the developers and property owners have so much more room to put their outdoor café accessories—their tables and chairs—which in turn begins to cultivate the kind of social commerce among neighborhoods, residents, and office workers that was really part of cities prior to the automobile playing such an overriding part in how the public realm is defined and utilized.

AN: How will the Urban Design Principles dovetail into existing neighborhood plans?  Don’t architects have enough regulations on their plate already?

Simon Pastucha: Both the Urban Design Principles and the Downtown Design Standards are set up as a set of ideas to incorporate into your design. They’re not a set of standard requirements saying that you have to have ‘this’ at a certain point or a certain place. They just say: How do you meet the intent of these?

EGL: It’s not a design review, it’s not an ordinance. It says: Here’s the value, now tell us how your project has achieved that value. I don’t think true design comes from telling architects how to design their buildings. True design comes from having the architect reflect on how that building achieves value that is expressed in a way that is appropriate to a local community. 

AN: When we talk about design that reinforces a neighborhood’s character, aren’t we entering the realm of the taste police?

EGL: I disagree with you on that. To me, what we’re talking about when we’re nurturing neighborhood character is, when a new project comes in—and sure, it may be a little higher density, because that’s what the zoning allows—but the articulation of the houses and the townhouses, they still face the street. Because we still want that street to have the sense that there are people in relationship to one another when they come out of their doors in the morning. Now, to me, that’s not the design police. That’s wading into a larger issue of community building or community sustaining without saying you must do absolute replicas of bungalows or absolute replicas of what’s across the street or on the other side of you.

AN: Each of you has a strong connection to design and yet both chose to be planners. What is that about?

SP:  I love going to other cities and I love exploring cities that are not aesthetically so pretty but the streets are full of life. And the people are using the buildings just like they would a really pretty building. It’s still about the bones and functioning well. People can adapt the building. I look at it and go, “my role as an urban designer is to make the street successful and the buildings relate to the street” and that makes people use it.

EGL: And that is 98 percent of the kinds of development we see in the city. The two percent are going to be the Rem Koolhaas-es, the architects that are going to be afforded a big commission to do a significant piece of architecture like a Broad Museum. Those come along two percent of the time. And I think architects and architectural critics tend to focus on those. One of the dangers of that is having architecture continue to be irrelevant to the masses of folks, who actually use and appreciate buildings that function on their behalf.

Peter Eisenman was giving a lecture about a building that he did in Tokyo. And.. he was having such delight in the fact that the floors and the stairs were uneven and that they would force the patron to keep an eye on where they were stepping and walking. So his whole idea was playing games with the form which I think is okay, but it wasn’t about the ease of use and the ability for folks to…enjoy the atmosphere. Architects always run the risk of becoming completely irrelevant.

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LAVA’s Green Lycra

If you find yourself in Sydney, Australia before June 10, you might want to run by the Customs House to see Green Void, which has an earlike affinity to Marsyas, Anish Kapoor’s 2002 sculpture for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

The project is the latest creation of the Sydney- and Stuttgart-based design firm LAVA, who claim to take their design cues from “technology, nature, and mankind.” Those were design principles for the Water Cube swimming center at the Beijing Olympics, on which firm founder Chris Bosse collaborated while working as an associate architect at Sydney's PTW.

According to Bosse, Green Void is a biomorphic Lycra sculpture inspired by the geometries of plants, spider webs, and soap bubbles, and fills a space he tells us is “the equivalent of 8 million cola cans.” But never mind: It looks good!

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Trouble in Paradise

A rendering of proposed new condos at the Bacara Resort, designed by John Pawson, which were rejected by the Goleta Design review board.
Courtesy Santa Barabara Independent

Santa Barbara’s omnipresent Mission aesthetic is about to be tested to the extreme. British architect John Pawson, known for favoring rich materials and stringent lines, put forth a proposal to build a modern addition to the upscale Bacara Resort and Spa just west of the city in the small town of Goleta, unleashing a conflagration in the process.

Residents and several members of the Goleta Design Review Board complained at a presentation of Pawsons’ conceptual designs on January 27 that it clashes with the area’s historic look, is much too large, and pushes the public away from the area’s popular Haskell’s Beach. Pawson is due to return with a revised proposal by the end of March

Bacara, a Mediterranean-style beachside complex, contains about 360 rooms and suites as well as two golf courses, a 42,000-square-foot spa, and a 1,000-acre ranch.  Pawson’s roughly 200,000-square-foot plan, which would add 56 condo-hotel rooms, would be composed of 10 two- and three-story buildings arranged in a crescent pattern, unified by long, sleek white balconies and dark inset windows. Building materials would include rustic stone, ashlar-bonded limestone, and pale bronze.

The proposal also calls for green roofs and rooftop photovoltaic installations. Rooms range from 2,300 to 2,990 square feet, and reach up to 35 feet tall—although “international style” horizontality was one of the board’s complaints about the project. The development would go up on the site of a public parking lot, tennis courts, and a path to Haskell’s Beach, which, according to the resort’s proposal to the review board, would be “relocated.”

“With all due respect, I really don’t think this style fits this site,” board vice chairman Thomas Smith told Pawson at the meeting. Another design review board member, Carl Schneider, added, “This is kind of an international style, and I’m not sure this is the right place for that,” according to a report in The Santa Barbara Independent. Neighbors at the meeting seemed most upset by the possible limit to beach access, adding that the resort has tried for years to put up barriers between itself and the public.

The project has been planned, at least on paper, since Bacara’s preliminary development plan was approved in 1985, paving the way for the resort’s present buildings. This second phase is known as the “completion phase.” Reached by telephone, Pawson told AN he had been working hard on the project for over a year.

“They said it contrasts too much with the nature of the area, many of the trees are tall but the beach has high bluffs and some low dunes with boulders and a lot of washed-up driftwood.  Our first go-round was horizontal and, of course, I liked it,” he said, “but my way is to listen to what people have to say. It’s not in my nature to take a stubborn stance. At the end of the day, you want people to like what you’ve done, even if you can’t believe everyone.”

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TVCC Blaze: Report From the Ground
From Beijing, longtime AN contributor Aric Chen writes in with these observations:
As of 1:00 AM, hundreds of people were still gathered around police barriers (some holding their dogs), taking photos and videos of the smoldering building, while water cannons were intermittently shot at both the north and south facades. It's a misty night and, through the haze, the building, which was lit by floodlights, appeared to be burnt to a crisp. From the south side, two fires were still flaring at what looked like about the 15th and 30th floors.
Seven firefighters were reported injured, one fatally from smoke inhalation. The event took on a surreal air as the night wore on. Chen added:
Maybe it's our cynicism--or boredom--that makes us (or some of us, at least) want to aestheticize such things, but the scene was eerily beautiful. You wonder what Rem's take on this would have been had he been there, especially if it wasn't his building.
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CCTV Hotel Ablaze (UPDATE)
Images and reports are spiraling out across the Web of a fire taking hold at the hotel adjacent OMA's CCTV Tower. (Building calls it the TVCC tower.) Details, at least in English, remain slim, but a translation of Chinese reports suggest the fire broke out at 9:21 p.m. local time, or just after eight o'clock this morning in New York. A call to OMA's New York office did confirm that the fire was in their building, which is still under construction, though all further inquiries were directed to the Rotterdam HQ. According to the translated reports, the site is swarmed with fire trucks and emergency responders who are struggling to keep the blaze at bay due to a shortage of water. The Times is reporting that Beijing had been full of fireworks throughout the night as part of lunar New Year celebrations, suggesting a probable cause for a fire that, the Times says, took all of 20 minutes to race from the ground floor to the top of the building. No official word anywhere yet as to the cause of the fire, if anyone was in the building, or if there have been any casualties. The BBC has some video of what can truly be described as an inferno (via Archinect). When we saw the fire, two things immediately came to minde: the tragic fire in August 2007 at 130 Liberty Street (could smoking construction workers be to blame?), as well as the demise of another Dutch master's work, Ben van Berkel's Villa NM, which burned down last year in a mysterious fire. We'll keep you updated as we learn more. Hopefully China correspondent Andrew Yang, who kept stumbling upon the CCTV tower and building paranoia over the last year, can shed some light. UPDATE: So far, only a rote release from OMA HQ, though they are presumably flooded right now, and probably as confused as the rest of us:
The Office for Metropolitan Architecture has learned that there has been a serious fire at the Television Cultural Centre (TVCC), the building adjacent to the headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV). The TVCC building was due to open in mid-May and contained a hotel, a theatre, and several studios. As we learn more about this tragedy, we will advise the public further.
In a podcast on the Times's website, reporter Andrew Jacobs essentially ruled out the fireworks thesis he initially posited on the paper's website, as well as surmising that the building was almost certainly damaged beyond repair. He also said the fire was creating quite a psychic stir in the city:
I think it’s very symbolic for Beijingers as an architectural pair. And then the other kind of layer that is the fact that it’s happened on the last day of the New Year. The fire’s still burning, and it’s just about midnight here, so ringing in the new year with this kind of disaster is very inauspicious, at least in the view of many Chinese. A lot of people in the crowd couldn’t help note that and this was just not a good omen for the new year.
He also questioned the Beijing fire department's ability to fight high-rise fires, though as we've noted above, that is even a difficult proposition here in New York. The Times is also reporting now that the fire is believed to have started around 8:30 p.m. local time, though possibly as early as 7:45 p.m. Bloomberg is reporting a representative for Mandarin Oriental--the operator of the 241-room, 522-foot tall hotel--saying that no one was injured. The AP quotes a gloomy OMAer at the site:
Erik Amir a senior architect at building designers OMA said the fire had destroyed years of hard work. "It really has been a rough 6-7 years for architects who worked on this project," said Amir, who rushed to the site after hearing of the fire. "I think it's really sad that this building is destroyed before it can be opened to the public," he said.
UPDATE 2: AN contributer Aric Chen reports. UPDATE 3: Little new news thus far, though people continue to push the fireworks allegations, including the Washington Post. Its report does include a good deal of news from the state news agency,, including that there are still no confirmed casualties, though seven firefighters have been hospitalized. The Post also reports that while fireworks are normally illegal in downtown Beijing, a reprieve was given for this year's New Years celebrations, though no explanation is given as to why this year was any different than those in the past. The Post also carried this rather poetic firsthand account:
"The building was like an oven, red inside," said Hu Jing, a 26-year-old paralegal who works in a building opposite the CCTV tower and noticed it burning just after 8:30. "In less than twenty minutes, the fire had engulfed half the building. Within half an hour, all of it was on fire. I thought, there goes billions of dollars, just burning."
Jeff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG airs an idea we'd been thinking of for much of the day, as well, that this was the rather literal pop of the construction bubble that has patronized architects, for better or worse, over the past few years:
Amongst many, many signs that the building boom has come to an end, from gridlocks of cars abandoned at the Dubai airport by fleeing workers to massive holes in the urban surface of Chicago, to entire architectural firms going out of business, to delayed towers and theme parks on pause, none seem quite as explicitly apocalyptic as the sight of OMA's CCTV complex – that is, the part of it known as TVCC, containing a luxury hotel – roaring with flames.
We still think it was the crane accidents last year that signalled the end, but this certainly comes in a close second. And LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne makes two interesting points on the paper's arts blog:
The architectural composition of the complex as a whole -- which I toured with Scheeren over the summer, and which I argued in a year-end piece "already ranks as the most significant piece of architecture of our young century" -- depends on the shorter hotel tower, which is known as TVCC. It is the hotel, in fact, that helps give the main tower its strange, shifting sense of scale. From certain angles the smaller section -- no shrimp itself at 34 stories tall -- looks like the tail of the big tower's dragon, from others like a fleeing creature about to be devoured by the CCTV's gaping mouth. [...] Potent symbolism aside, though, I'd be very surprised if the hotel weren't instantly rebuilt. The Chinese leadership has understood the graphic power of the CCTV complex -- the way it suggests a modern, ambitious and innovative new China -- from the earliest stages, and it seems highly unlikely it would allow the charred remains of the hotel to stand for any extended period. This is particularly true given Chinese sensitivity around the idea that its economy is rapidly losing steam. So there's likely to be no drawn-out, painstaking investigation of the wreckage by some Chinese version of the FBI or ATF. As soon as the last ember is out, I'd guess, the bulldozers will be clearing the site to begin again. Even in a global slowdown -- perhaps especially in one -- construction in China can operate at lightning speed.
UPDATE 4: Agence France Presse is reporting that one of the seven injured firefighters died in the hospital tonight: "Zhang Jianyong died early on Tuesday morning at a hospital in Beijing from toxic gases he inhaled while fighting the fire, Xinhua said, citing the city's fire control authorities." The Chinese authorities are now also suggesting fireworks, and not workers, may be to blame for the fire:
The official news agency quoted a city government spokesman as saying initial reports indicated firecrackers set off to celebrate the Lunar New Year, China's most important annual festival, has caused the fire. Firefighters found remnants of firecrackers on the roof of the burning building, Xinhua said. The agency had earlier quoted a witness saying the blaze appeared to have been sparked after fireworks landed on top of the hotel building.
According to the AP, the fire was put out "early Tuesday morning. And with the sad and happy news that the fire has been extinguished, it is hopefully time to build again. I can't help but think about a conversation I had earlier today with Alan. I asked if this was really as big of news as it seemed, or if we were simply particularly attuned to it because some big-name architect was involved. Would this still be making all the front pages were it just some regular old building, one in which almost no one was hurt? Of course not, Alan replied. Just look at The Huffington Post, he said, where the headline screams, "Rem Koolhaas Tower In Beijing Goes Up In Flames." Design hasn't been so notable since Philip Johnson was on the cover of Time. Just look at some of the 225 (225!) comments on HuffPo:
  • This is terrible for the people injured and Rem Koolhaas who is the consummate professional architect.
  • Holy balls that looks insane.
  • Notice how it did not collapse like WTC #7 which was the same size. Thats because it was brought down with demolitions. On BBC and CNN they said it had collapsed but it was still standing and not 'pulled' yet. More proof 9-11 was an inside job and that demolitions had been set up in the towers for weeks. Unbelievable the media establishment is afraid to tackle this...or is it?
  • this must be a testament to the extremely high building standards they have in china, just like the high standards they maintain for food, drugs, manufacturing, environmental and agriculture.and to think that's where some are planning to send the last american manufacturing jobs while the 'brainier' jobs go to india.
Okay. So half the comments were about the fire itself, and the other half were 7 WTC related, or jokes about Chinese construction standards. Still, whether it is a product of the building boom or some other design phenomenon, there is no denying that architecture has indeed entered--and hopefully not exited--a golden age, where the work of Gehry and Nouvel and Herzog & de Meuron are celebrated worldwide. An age where good architecture by-and-large triumphs over the bland and banal. An age where people look up. Far from being a symbolic end, look to this as a new begining, a time for more reasonable, even-handed, well-meaning buildings. Not to say this and others weren't. On the contrary. It's just that, in these harder times, we can only hope the cream will continue to rise, from the ashes, with the phoenix, etc, etc. And that, somewhere, Rem Koolhaas is, if not smiling, at least smirking. Keep fighting the good fight. UPDATE 5: Perhaps we've spoken too hopefully too soon. Our man in China Andrew Yang sends along a portentous message:
It was really gut-wrenching to see TVCC burn like that, itself like a firecracker. I woke up to read that one firefighter was killed in the blaze and several others injured. The Chinese media are so far not even reporting it. According to, a notice was sent to all major organizations by the government to stop reporting the fire last night. As to the cause, a lot of people are speculating that it was caused by fireworks. There are three major firework nights during the Chinese New Year--one on the eve of Chinese New Year, one five days in, and the third was just last night, on the first full moon of the cycle. During the festival, people can buy July 4th-grade fireworks all over China, and fire them off, literally next to buildings, on roads, on sidewalks--they light them up just about anywhere. Of course the cause of the fire is still not known, and may not ever ascertained, since this matter is something that the Chinese government is going to be controlling very closely.
UPDATE 6: Day Two round-up, including an apology from CCTV, whose fireworks celebration--rather ironically celebrating the new buildings--caused the fire; reports of a local media blackout on the issue; and some critical takes on the fire.
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Towers of Sin
Like all-dutiful journalists, I read Romenesko each day (it's like ArchNewsNow, but with media links), mostly for the navel-gazing and doomsaying that characterize print media reporting on print media. And so it was with great surprise that I actually found some architectural news on the site Friday, namely that Chicago's Marina City, in addition to being one of the city's most famous buildings, is also one of its most notorious, so much so that one of the tenants has launched an online newspaper about the lurid towers, Marina City News. Second only to Mies's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, at least architecturally speaking, Marina City was designed in 1959 by Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, and is perhaps best known to those unacquainted with the city's skyline from its place on the cover the of equally classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by local boys Wilco. I certainly had no idea Marina City was so scandal-ridden, which only adds to the mystique of the lovelorn album--Was Jeff Tweedy in the know? Perhaps a resident? John Denver was. Or so reports the Chicago Tribune in its piece about the Marina City News. But, more to the point:
Towering over the Chicago River, the corn-cob-shaped Marina City towers have stood for 44 years as icons of the architectural daring that make Chicago a world city. But inside the 61-story buildings is enough scandal and intrigue to fill a daily newspaper, or so the producers of believe. The Web site says it is the source for news inside the self-described "City within a City"—a 2,000-resident microcosm of Chicago. There's the dentist brought down in a federal prostitution bust, power plays rivaling City Hall, and such quirky denizens as the colorful-suit guy who dances for passing tour boats. "We've got it all: sex, crime, corruption," said Michael Michalak, a real estate broker inside Marina City who is the site's sole advertiser. "But it's also a great place to live."
While Romenesko and other media watchers are no doubt more interested amorphous First Amendment issues surrounding the site--its lone editor has been fined for operating it and barred from recording semi-public board meetings--we are more interested in the detailed intrigues of an architectural icon. After all, there are info sites and fan sites galore about the Empire State Building and Guggenheim Bilbao, but how many of them have their own dedicated gossip rags? We're adding this one to the bookmarks.
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If Architects Ruled the World
In the wake of the recent presidential election, more people, including architects, have become interested and involved in local and national government. As part of the AIA’s efforts to encourage members to run for or be appointed to political offices or commissions, they recently conducted a survey tallying up the number of active members involved in politics, running the gamut from mayors to city council members and planning commissioners. The results of the survey revealed that there are at least 850 architects, making up more than one percent of total AIA membership, currently holding such posts. According to Scott Frank, Director of Media Relations at the AIA, “the survey aims to get more architects involved in the debate about the role the built environment has within the larger society as well as the smaller community.” Giving architects the opportunity to “have a seat at the table,” Frank told AN, “architects can use their design building and problem solving skills to help enlighten policy-makers on the importance of good design in planning.” The AIA is taking several measures to prod other members to follow in the footsteps of the already 850 active politicos. At the AIA’s Grassroots Leadership and Legislative Conference (currently taking place now in Washington D.C.) and at the National Convention in San Francisco in April, there will be workshops devoted to the importance of civic engagement for the architectural profession. If architects don’t yet rule the world, they may soon!