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You Could Be Home By Now
Ian Freimuth/Flickr

Shelter. Let’s start there. It’s a basic need. The root of architecture— Marc-Antoine Laugier’s enlightenment frontispiece offers up the primitive hut as reason over nature. A right, right? We’d like to think so. But globally and nationally, the simplest of human acts of shelter are elusive, politicized, and pushed to extremes. In architecture building types conventions split along economic lines: house versus housing. The former is a client-driven expression of taste, while the latter requires a systematic juggling of multiple units and services.

In looking for a theme to bring together Midwest and West for this issue, we found that the changing states of housing could not be ignored. Both regions share a long legacy of progressive residential design. Indeed, Frank Lloyd Wright’s office birthed the careers of Los Angeles experimenters R.M. Schindler and John Lautner, whose first gig in L.A. was for Wright, project managing a Usonian-style perched in the hills. Today the West Coast is facing a critical housing shortage and rising rents mean that shelter is increasingly precarious for residents in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Chicago, on the other hand, is dealing with a shrinking population, particularly in its low-income neighborhoods, as unemployment, crime, and foreclosure challenge community resilience.

With a loss of over 200,000 residents in the first ten years of the century, mostly from economically depressed neighborhoods, Chicago is now hoping to stop the flight from the city with an ambitious five-year “Bouncing Back” plan. Mixed-income and affordable housing are at the heart of the plan, which the city hopes will leverage some of Chicago’s existing assets. With a shrinking population, finding housing stock is rarely the issue. As such, the city is focusing a great deal of its planning and money on helping existing and potential property owners in an effort to stem the neglect and foreclosure of existing single and multi-family homes. Support for these units comes from a handful of programs, including state and federal tax credits and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) incentives. This plays well with Chicago’s aversion to dense affordable housing, as the city is only building limited large affordable developments.

Meanwhile, the fight between house and housing is heating up in Los Angeles. The proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative ballot measure drafted by the anti-development Coalition to Preserve LA pits homeowners against high-density projects. The CPLA’s sights are set on the luxury apartment towers planned for Hollywood. The group decries the “Manhattanization of Hollywood”, but the proposed two-year moratorium on projects that include General Plan amendments (often granted by city officials for greater FAR, more height, or reduced parking would also impact small and mid-size development, including much-needed affordable housing. The preservation mentioned that the organization’s name speaks not to the conservation of the city’s history, but instead maintains an Arcadian myth of a low-density urban fabric.

In early February, L.A. city and county officials approved a $100 million plus plan to address the current homelessness state of emergency—the county has the largest chronic homeless population in the country. In the near term, the plan will tackle services, but for architects it is the long-term agenda that is critical, with close to $2 billion allocated for housing over the next decade. This puts affordable housing as a design problem front and center.

In short, the West Coast doesn’t have enough housing (affordable and market rate), Chicago doesn’t have enough that is livable. The home truth is that while urbanism and infrastructure have long dominated discussions about the future of cities, it now seems that the domestic sphere will shape our understanding for the next couple decades. For designers, this inversion where private impacts public is clearly a challenge given politics, policy, and code, but it is also an important opportunity to express architectural agency.

Where Have All the Artists Gone?

In 2010, Far Rockaway resident Patti Smith proclaimed that “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling” and she recommended other cities like Detroit and Poughkeepsie where they should consider living. “New York City,” she said, “has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find a new city.” Sadly, Patti is right: Many artists are giving up on New York because of the high cost of residential real estate and studios. In addition, if The New York Times is to be believed, many young artists just starting out are bypassing New York for more affordable cities like Los Angeles and second tier towns where a live-work studio can be had for a fraction of the price of a walk up tenement in Crown Heights. A recent Times article, “Art Scene Heats Up in Downtown Los Angeles” quotes L.A.-based artist Sterling Ruby. “Culturally we’ve always been overshadowed by the film industry, [but] now the art world is at a weird parallel with it,” Ruby, the Times writes, works in a four-acre studio complex in Vernon, California, just south of Downtown. A four-acre studio?

New York will not soon be replaced as a preeminent marketplace for art—given the city’s enormous wealth, tradition, and gallery infrastructure. But what has made New York such a unique and exciting city for the past 60 years is that art is not just consumed here, but is also produced in the five boroughs.

Is it possible that New York can continue as a creative center for artists in all mediums given the struggle for affordable space in the city? Maybe?

Last year there were signs that the city was catching up to the problem and offering viable solutions for the art community. Mayor de Blasio announced plans to develop 150 units a year (over the next ten years) of artists’ housing alongside a separate 500 units of workspace. In this plan, low-income artists can qualify if they make between $29,400 and $47,000 a year, with families of four qualifying between $41,951 and $67,120. Only artists and musicians falling within these annual salary ranges would qualify for the new units. The mayor’s office proposed four artist developments that are currently in the RFP stage: 55 Stuyvesant in Staten Island, Spofford (the former juvenile detention center) in the Bronx, the Slaughterhouse project in Manhattan, and a Downtown Brooklyn South site. These projects spread across the city are important first steps but for a city that needs scores of Westbeths, it is not addressing the enormous need.

It will be hard to compete with southern California’s low residential property values, but other European cities like Paris and Berlin have developed strategies to create, fund, and maintain housing for artists. So must New York City find a model that works in the five boroughs or the city will lose one of its greatest cultural assets—artists and cultural production.

Who wants to live in a city of only brokers and Wall Street financiers? New York seems to be strangling from its own success as it adds scores of new high-end apartments for wealthy art buyers but no room for the artists. The aforementioned projects are a drop in the bucket of the real need for affordable accommodations for artists but they point in the right direction. Fingers crossed!

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Who Speaks for Architects?
Johan Hansson / Flickr

The New York architectural community’s relationship to Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty is a complicated one. Not only does the mayor not understand or value the contributions that design and architecture can make to the quality of everyday life, but he also turns his back on many of the positive contributions the Bloomberg administration made in that realm.

Bloomberg can rightly be accused of many things, including overstaying his welcome as mayor, but he was undisputedly good for architects and he appreciated the value design can bring to the metropolis. While the city certainly became a welcoming land bank for the one percent under Bloomberg, his DDC and DOT directors actively transformed every part of the city from Midtown Manhattan to Arverne in the Rockaways. Not only did we get a bike share program, but we also got new fire stations, libraries, and NYCHA community centers.

De Blasio, on the other hand, seems to consider design simply an add-on for the middle classes and a step to an increasingly gentrified city. Current agency heads have told us that there is a new collaborative spirit in city hall under de Blasio—and this is a good sign—but the mayor has never uttered a word about what his future city should or could look like. Nor has he nodded toward the benefits of a better-designed city.

It is an open question and one worth asking: How much is the architecture community contributing to de Blasio’s perception that architecture is only for the wealthy and middle class?

We all know that de Blasio is hyper focused on the most important physical issue facing the city: affordable housing for the poor, homeless, and even working middle classes.

As a result, architects in the city today cannot help but be supportive of the mayor’s housing initiatives if they believe in a diverse and livable city.

But the particulars of how we get to a more equitable city are more complicated. The architect Claire Weisz wrote AN, “Where does the architecture and design community stand on the recent decision not to extend the 421-a tax exemption or abatement program?”

This is a political initiative that would undoubtedly help encourage the development of housing in the five boroughs and help generate commissions for architects. It would also, if framed properly, help provide more affordable housing.

Perhaps the problem is that, while New York City has an unparalleled number of organizations devoted to design research and its impact on government policy, none of them actively lobby to take political positions on urban issues that are controversial or complicated.

It may be time for a political organization of architects that can demand, for example, that workers who build buildings be treated fairly and have decent worksites. For the first time in a half-century, new luxury housing is being created in the city that does not pay union scale wages to its workers. Perhaps it is time for architects to demand that workers on our buildings be paid a living wage or even start refusing work if this is the case with developers. These are difficult issues and it is hard to imagine individual architects making this personal stand, but what about forming an organization that makes the case for design and public policy around these hard, difficult decisions?

It’s time to recreate an organization like the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) to make the connections between how to make a livable city for all and what architects can contribute to this discussion. ADPSR once made a connection between the costs of war and a lack of a dynamic urban policy (and was awarded an AIA citation of honor in 1993). A new and different organization might argue the connection between design and everyday public policy forcefully—and what the city might look like if it does make this connection.

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The Greater Outdoors
ODA's 303 E 44th St. features 16-foot high spaces between every two floors, providing private outdoor space for every unit.
Courtesy ODA

In 1986, the City of New York demolished activist Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden to build housing. The intricately designed 15,000-square-foot plot on the Lower East Side was a beloved outdoor space, open to everyone. Although marked vacant on official maps throughout its 11-year existence, it was a work of public art so impactful that the Storefront for Art and Architecture held a competition in 1984 to reimagine what it could be, if the housing were created around it and the garden saved. NYCHA received proposals from architects such as Eric Owen Moss, Neil Denari, Lebbeus Woods, and Diller + Scofidio.

Today, the legacy of Purple’s epic garden project lives on at the Hotel Indigo, a boutique hotel on a very different Lower East Side. In the hotel is Mr. Purple, a bar that appropriates Purple’s cachet but, as a quasi-public space, rejects the values he embodied. There was even a burger called “Mr. Purple Burger,” an odd choice given that its namesake was a vegetarian. (It has since been taken off the menu.)

The Wanda Vista Towers by Studio Gang incorporate Olin-designed public space on the river and street levels in Chicago.
Courtesy Studio Gang

This sad spectacle parallels the state of architecture and public space in 2016 Manhattan. Many of the most sophisticated, largest, grandest design projects in the city today are “luxury” residential, made to be experienced by only a few. It can be hard to reconcile the top-notch designs from afar with their less-than-inspiring programs at street level. As critic Aaron Betsky once quipped, “Manhattan is theirs; we just get to admire it.”

If culture and architecture have absorbed these urban changes, it stands to reason that the public sphere has changed, as well. The relationship between public and private realms is increasingly complex. Perhaps nowhere is the interweaving of public and private more palpable than in outdoor spaces, from balconies and terraces, to plazas and parks, to courtyards and gardens.

The transformation of urban outdoor space into a commodity has elevated outdoor space to the same grandeur that has historically been reserved for luxury interiors, and there is a lot to learn from the shift.

In this month’s feature, "In and Outdoors," Sam Lubell focuses on some of the latest outdoor spaces that came with the tidal wave of large and very expensive residential projects.

These projects raise some of the most complicated design questions around the value of private and public outdoor space. AN profiles everything from Midtown towers to smaller projects along the High Line. So what to make of these new urban residential outdoor spaces, their relationship to the city, and to ourselves?

Among the responses to AN editor-in-chief William Menking’s last editorial, architect Claire Weisz responded with a call for all architects, publishers, activists, and city-dwellers to care about and fight for their civic spaces.

While some of the most intriguing residential outdoor spaces resemble suburban lawns—in theory and proportion—in the sky, we can’t forget that designers and architects should strive to make an impact where they can, whether through advocacy, alternative funding models, innovative technologies, or even good old-fashioned beautiful design.

The realities of these projects can raise questions—both good and bad—about the changing relationship of politics, finance, and design. Interboro’s Lent Space temporarily turned a private lot into a public garden, but only with the permission of Trinity Real Estate and Carl Weisbrod. The project was a controlled public space that will be landbanked until property values go up.

Even as the spectacular private residential boom causes massive tectonic shifts in the city’s landscapes, Mayor de Blasio seems, at least on principle, to be turning focus from highly developed areas to the city at large. Parks Without Borders asks citizens to help allocate 50 million dollars to improve the quality of parks in all boroughs. If approved, his ambitious but embattled citywide rezoning plans would aim to increase the number of affordable housing units in exchange for increased density in all corners of the boroughs.

Architects and planners can still speak up for the public outdoor spaces they believe in and ask questions about the mechanisms by which they are delivered, even if these new spaces look slightly different than traditional parks and plazas. We can take cues from the ongoing struggle for Bushwick Inlet Park, the promised-but-not-yet-delivered, quid pro quo public green space from the 2005 Williamsburg residential rezoning, or the questions raised by NYCHA’s plans to infill public green space at housing projects with market-rate and affordable housing, developed privately.

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Detours Ahead
The Central Hub of Hopscotch in the SCI-Arc parking lot.
Casey Kringlen

While putting the finishing touches on this combined west and southwest issue, AN received word of the passing of Edward Soja. According to colleagues, he had been ill for some time but I was unprepared for the news and was left mulling the death of one of Los Angeles’s critical voices at a time when questions of equity and identity— topics that he often wrote about—still need addressing.

A professor emeritus at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, Soja was considered part of the L.A. School, a group that also includes Mike Davis. His 1989 book, Postmodern Geographies, came with the chunky academic subtitle “The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory,” yet its ideas influenced architects and students well into the 1990s. For my generation, the use of “deconstruction” by Soja and others opened up new ways to understand, write about, and practice in the city.

“Ed was a magician who mesmerized an entire generation of young scholars, and made L.A. a decisive paradigm for postmodern urban geography,” said Davis over email. “The sprawling metropolis for him was an infinite theoretical adventure, which he enjoyed with incomparable gusto.”

In describing John Portman’s Bonaventure hotel, Soja wrote, “Fragmented and fragmenting, homogeneous and homogenizing, divertingly packaged yet curiously incomprehensible….” Comprehensiveness was understood as impossible, but multiple perspectives—however incomplete or eclectic— could go a long way into aggregating into an entire urban narrative. In today’s digital age this still seems spot on.

Certainly the postmodern affinity for the fragment to stand in for the whole is at play in Hopscotch, a new opera by Yuval Sharon and his company, The Industry, which takes Downtown Los Angeles and the Arts District as its stage. Black limousines shuttle audience members and performers alike along multiple routes and acts take place in the prom-ready limo interiors and at pit stops along the way. A tale of lost love is sung in the empty auditorium of the Million Dollar Theater and in the Bradbury Building’s ever-stunning atrium. To tell the story of a pending motorcycle crash, an animation is projected from the roof of the sedan onto the side of the 2nd Street Tunnel.

Technological assists keep the performance in sync, but the overall experience is a blur of mobility dotted by moments of recognition of the Orpheus myth and fragmented views of architectural landmarks. Viewers who want a more complete, although not necessarily coherent, version can watch simultaneous feeds on dozens of monitors in a pavilion in SCI-Arc’s parking lot.

Hopscotch reinvents opera, but more importantly for our purposes, it rethinks how the city is perceived. In looking at the booming development in Oakland in this issue, AN’s Audrey Wachs compared the multiple perspectives on investment versus displacement to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and its many chapters describing one unknowable place.

Similarly, when contributing editor Sam Lubell interviewed Christopher Hawthorne about his “The Third L.A. Project,” the Los Angeles Times architecture critic suggested, “[A] lot of the basic ways in which the city defines itself are up for grabs in a way that’s not true in any other major American city that I can think of.”

He sees changing civic attitudes shifting away from the car (including limos) and the freeway toward bikes, public transportation, and overall urban density. The move, he said, is the nascent establishment of a post-suburban identity—what he calls a third L.A.

Positioned against egregious L.A. clichés about car culture and California living, Hawthorne’s urban concept is optimistic and holistic (even if he’s pessimistic about the future of architecture here).

Perhaps in my affection for the eclectic, I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t a little overly profound in the pronouncement of a new era for the city. But that’s okay, too. Dionne Warwick may have sung, “L.A. is one great big freeway,” but the legacy of the L.A. School (and the traffic app Waze) tells us there’s always another surface street.

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Where We Stand
The Native American wigwam could be considered the original Midwest architecture.
Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society

After completing my first issue as the Midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper in November, I find myself reflecting on what Midwest architecture might be, or if there is such a thing. And more importantly why we might need a newspaper for it. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in this very issue. As a combined East/Midwest issue, one region can be held up against the other,  but maybe this is just the completely wrong way to look at the situation. A Chicagoan will be the first to tell you not to compare their city to New York, as much as almost any other Midwesterner will tell you that Chicago is not the whole Midwest. This wish to define one’s self, or practice, with more specificity, or individuality, is not limited to the question of locality though. It is the defining characteristic of our field today.

The plurality of practice, project, and pedagogy is palpable. As much as some people would like there to be, there is no unifying movement, no zeitgeist-defined aesthetic. At most, we can find loose groups of overlapping sensibilities and ideological scenes. Just the discussion of this plurality has dominated much of the criticism, for and against, the current Chicago Architecture Biennial, an exhibition with the express mission of surveying the global field.

I, for one, find this atomizing of architectural thought intriguing, if not exciting. For better or for worse, it would seem that architecture has begun to respond to the greater tendencies of contemporary culture. Those same tendencies err on the side of the individual, the one-off, the on-demand, and the parametrically calculated skin, all without a single identical member.

So with no ideological center to point toward an organization of the field, perhaps locality is a viable way to grasp what is happening. In a time when technology allows for the instant and thorough transfer of knowledge, regardless of location, being physically in place still has not been usurped by the digital world. This is to say, one can know what it looks like to stand in the canyon of towers along the banks of the Chicago River, but one cannot know what it is like unless they are physically there. Until, if ever, that aspect of built architecture is overcome, location is going to matter. And even if paper architecture disassociates itself from site, it still is unavoidably taking a stand on the subject.

So what of a Midwest architecture, and a paper to report on it? Maybe there once was an architecture of the Midwest. Perhaps in the proto-architecture of the Ojibwa wigwams or soddies built by settlers when the Midwest was the frontier. Though the spaces designed today might not be quite so tied to their location as those first homes on the prairie, there is still a tie between space and place, despite any trends, movements, and polemics.  And though we may not be able to point to a Midwest architecture with absolute certainty, the Midwest, as a place for design and building is going through changes. My hope as I assume this position is to chart that shifting field, foster new conversations, and just maybe start a debate or two.

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What happened to the MAS?
Courtesy MAS
The Municipal Art Society’s mission claims that it “fights for intelligent urban planning, design, and preservation through education, dialogue, and advocacy in New York City.” But while it still engages in a dialogue of sorts, it seems to have lost its fight for a fight. The society was founded in 1893 as a better government organization in the wake of the City Beautiful movement and boasts of its “decades of advocacy” that include defeating proposals by Mayor John F. Hylan to build the IND subway within Central Park, as well as the Music and Art Center on its south edge. MAS also helped halt the demolition of Tweed Courthouse, Radio City Music Hall, and most famously, Grand Central Terminal. What was once one of the fiercest and most devoted New York City organizations that would litigate when it thought the best interests of the city were threatened, has now become a de-fanged developer and real estate-led organization that serves as a cheerleader for major development projects like Barry Diller and Hudson River Park Trust’s Pier 55. It is always a balancing act to create a board of directors in a nonprofit that needs to raise funds, but the MAS’s recent leadership has handed the organization over to the real estate industry, who it in turn “honors” in its fund-raising benefits. When it decides to take a controversial position it is usually something like their weak stand against Mayor de Blasio’s idea to take pedestrian plazas out of Times Square. Several weeks after every editorial in the city publicly came out against the plans, the MAS finally opposed the crazy scheme. When it came out and testified in support of the super tall One Vanderbilt Avenue project, its former directors must have sighed a collective “Oh no!” It has not taken a difficult or controversial stand in recent memory, choosing to act instead as a cheerleader for development throughout the Bloomberg administration. Instead, the society spends its time and money organizing meaningless sound bite events like their summits for New York City, which encourage attendees to tweet out their thoughts and give advertorial stage-time for new digital start ups and developers of projects it wants to support. One wonders what comes out of these really meaningless events—except the appearance of having done something. In addition, the MAS once supported fellowships that worked on substantive planning and preservation issues that have been dropped. Its Ralph C. Menapace Fellowship gave new law school graduates an opportunity to acquire firsthand experience in the legislative process and litigation and advocacy before New York’s regulatory bodies. Members of the New York preservation community talk about the importance of the fellowship in providing important research to committees, agencies, and commissions. This was something that truly benefited the preservation community, but the leadership of MAS quietly abandoned the program. In retrospect, the problems with MAS leadership should have been apparent in 2010, when it decided to move out early from its long-term lease at Madison Avenue’s Urban Center—which it helped establish—to private offices on 57th street. No one can blame the group from wanting to cash out early from its lease, but the Urban Center was such an important public space (with the city’s only architecture bookstore) that has never been replaced. In the meantime, another better government organization—The City Club—has reformed (with several former MAS leaders) to take up the slack created when MAS decided to not take any positions controversial to the real estate industry. The Club is the group behind the opposition to the Pier 55 development that MAS supports and promotes. The MAS is currently seeking a new director and a change in leadership, which could not have come at a more important time for preservation efforts in the city. With development speeding along at pace rivaled only by the 1920s, the historic fabric of the city is threatened in new and more powerful ways. We have never needed an organization like the MAS more than at the present moment. Let’s hope it finds a new leader not just with vision, but the steely resolve to take controversial stands when they are needed to defeat proposals that only benefit the real estate community and not the larger city.
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Natural Histories
Second nature: The recently restored redwood tree at Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka

If the West Coast has a 2015 tag line—something to be read in a deep voice at the end of a movie trailer or epitaphically carved in granite—it’s certainly Oscar Wilde: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”

Our nature is certainly unruly—a parched region bracing for Santa Ana winds, El Niño, and earthquakes—but there’s nothing wild about Wilde’s sentiments. Susan Sontag used the line (quoted from the playwright’s An Ideal Husband) in her pivotal essay, 1964 “Notes on Camp,” to underscore the artifice, effort, and exaggeration required to approximate something authentic. In Los Angeles, we have a very loose relationship to what is natural or genuine. Reyner Banham clearly had his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek when he famously wrote “I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original,” as he searched out the city’s ecologies.

Here, the unnatural is second nature: face lifts, back lots, the Matterhorn, front lawns, palm tree cell towers. Which is why, perhaps, there’s been such an outpouring of good cheer for the restoration and re-opening of Clifton’s Cafeteria in Downtown L.A.—an establishment that has a full-sized redwood tree inside its dining room, as well as an assortment of taxidermy creatures: bears, coyotes, and buffalo. The restaurant is high camp, a celebration of its own ridiculousness, of our own perilousness in the face of real nature. Even before the tiki bar opens, it’s intoxicating.

Entering into this artifact of L.A. history that has been revived as a thematic accompanied by big band-era tunes, we dare to envision an original Broadway, one mythologically free from the frictions of today—the standoffs between the homeless and the business improvement district left at the door.

The incredible change Downtown Los Angeles is undergoing is serious business. However, we also need to address a kitschy scheme in the making: The Pershing Square Restoration Society’s petition to bring back the details and ethos of the park’s 1910 design.

In pleading for restoration, the group’s determination runs counter to Pershing Square Renew, the international design competition launched earlier this fall. Instead of pursuing an architectural solution, the society dreams of palm-lined allées and Mediterranean Beaux-Arts fountains—the version of L.A.’s first park prior to its midcentury demolition for a parking lot and the subsequent redesigns leading up to Legorreta’s effort.

The current state of Pershing Square is pretty much unlovable. Entrances to below-grade parking wall it off from the street and the architect’s Disney-fied version of Barragán hasn’t stood the test of time. The failings of this piece of architecture has led Pershing Square Renew, a public-private partnership with council member José Huizar, to favor a participatory placemaking approach. “Our intention is not to create a masterpiece, but to create a canvas that invites the community to create their own masterpieces in how they use the space,” said Eduardo Santana, executive director of Pershing Square Renew to AN back in September.

So while tipsters report that global players like OMA submitted for the RFQ (shortlist was notified at the end of last month), the odds are against star schemes. Nevertheless, it would be unfortunate if the revitalization of Downtown L.A. resulted in a corny exercise in recreation or a wholly processes-orientated attitude. While a natural Pershing Square is certainly tempting, it is impossible to return to a natural or genuine state in Los Angeles. The constant oscillation between real and “real” is the city at its most authentic; anything else is a theme park.

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Landscape Operations
Tongva Park by James Corner Field Operations.
Courtesy James Corner Field Operations

An ongoing debate resurfaced at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. One critic in particular, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, criticized the curators, saying that it seems that “contemporary architecture [has] ceased to exist, the discipline’s guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, and driven it to self-annihilation. Architects have now en masse dedicated themselves to doing good via basic social work.”

His complaint is part of an ongoing crisis in architecture that has divided the discipline. In one camp is a group of architects who work to build new forms, many of whom are divorced from a particular social or political agenda. Often, advanced technology is involved, though it is not mandatory. In the other camp, a group is far less concerned with form-making, and more with attempting to make the world better through design and architecture-related thinking and practice.

What has emerged, perhaps as a result of the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis, is a more expanded field of architectural thought, propelled by progressive urban politics and a hope that architecture can still make an impact in the world. These projects often eschew traditional notions of building altogether, looking to activism and conceptual art as fertile productive territory.


Of course, architecture is at its best when it encompasses both lines of thought—beautiful, inspiring solutions to relevant, urgent problems. But recently, architects seem to struggle to reconcile these differences.

In the realm of landscape architecture, however, these ambitions seem to be in harmony more than ever.

Landscapes are no longer simply beautiful complements to buildings or vague public social spaces. Designers and clients are activating landscape design to operate environmentally as flood barriers and water remediation zones, among other goals. Rebuild by Design harnessed this potential after Hurricane Sandy, and hopefully the proposals will come to fruition, as they are currently being moved forward by their respective governments now that HUD has stepped aside.

Landscape architects are also tasked with operating socially to create new public spaces, connect previously separated neighborhoods, and reclaim underused land in and around infrastructure, often in synch with other rebuilding and recovery efforts, such as waterfront development or neighborhood revitalization.

In our landscape feature, we profile some of the ways landscape plays out as a political agent in Detroit, where artists, activists, and farmers are using ecological planning  and landscape design to create a new kind of urbanism—one that provides green space and fresh food while promising a better city for future generations.

While landscapes are growing in size and scale, technology is being implemented successfully to plan and execute bold new landscape forms, such as the green swoops and concrete curves of Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line. Landscape architecture incorporates Rhino, Grasshopper, and even Arduino and advanced robotics, to give new life to green social spaces across the country. Invivia, a team from Cambridge, MA, was recently selected to build 99 White Balloons at Circle Acres Nature Preserve in Austin, Texas. The project utilizes movement sensors to activate the installation when people are nearby and a series of weather sensors to illuminate the installation according to temperature changes.

Technology is implemented on the front end of design, too. The Trust for Public Land’s Climate Smart Cities initiative, for example, aggregates layers of GIS data to make it easier for cities and designers to use in a graphic interface. The data allows users pinpoint the sites that will best match their ambitions for the city. In the other half of our landscape feature, we look at socially activated projects that marry design and urban politics by engaging the public through visual software and presentation.

As landscape design becomes more relevant and powerful in the urban sphere, perhaps architecture could learn a thing or two about how to get along?

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Second City Switch-Up
MAD ARCHITECTS' DESIGN FOR THE LUCAS MUSEUM OF NARRATIVE ART was one of many projects Chris Bentley covered for AN.

As our editor-in-chief Bill Menking observed in a recent editorial of his own, this fall marks some big changes for The Architect’s Newspaper. We’re both widening and deepening our coverage of architecture, design, planning, and everything in between by hiring sharp new reporters and editors who will continue to make our independent upstart of a paper one of the essential resources of the industry from coast to coast. I, however, will no longer be serving as its Midwest Editor. After three and a half years manning the helm from Chicago, I’ve left the city and the post to continue my freelance career from Boston.

I’ve had the privilege of covering Chicago and the Midwest during an exciting time for its architecture and design scene. We’ve followed the emergence of wood as a tall-building material, the thorny politics of midcentury modern preservation, the rebirth of urban neighborhoods and downtowns, from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Cleveland, and countless other stories, large and small. In the edition’s home base of Chicago, it’s by all accounts the most active time for new development in recent memory, with at least a dozen high-profile projects in the pipeline or recently completed. These projects promise to shape the future of the urban experience in one of the nation’s great cities. Matt Messner, the incoming Midwest Editor, who trained at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s MAD-Crit program, will lead our continuing coverage of this exciting time in Chicago, tapping and expanding our network of freelancers in other hotspots of design around the Midwest, from the Twin Cities to Detroit to Louisville, Kentucky.

Kicking off this month, the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial may be the poster child for the renewed international interest in Chicago’s rollicking cultural scene. But that vibrancy has always typified Chicago, whether or not observers from afar were keyed into it. I could use this page to cheer on the design community in Chicago—its global relevance and natural cosmopolitanism, its unpretentious brilliance, its insistence on innovation despite having already cemented a legacy as a preeminent center for modern design—but Chicagoans don’t need the pat on the back to keep working. All of that will become immediately apparent to a host of new visitors during the biennial.

Less apparent to visitors who don’t go looking for it might be the city’s challenges—segregation, inequality, corruption, violence—problems which do not just belong to Chicago but to the nation as well. Last year I called for the biennial participants and organizers to tackle these issues head-on, and I hope that some do. But, of course, there’s more to these problems than any architect (let alone a festival pavilion) can address. So here’s to the spirit of hard work worth doing and the pursuit of something new—an ethos I learned in Chicago.

I thank all of you for reading and subscribing, and hope you’ll continue to follow my work on my website and on Twitter at @Cementley.

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The Way Back
The Los Angeles River.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“You can’t rehearse what you ain’t invented,” said Frank Gehry in an interview in this month’s issue, offering up his favorite quotation from jazz musician Wayne Shorter. For L.A.’s most famous architect, the line speaks to improvisation, invention, and the vast possibilities of art and architecture. Vernacular in its delivery, it recalls Gehry’s early experiments with everyday materials. But so much for unrehearsed; he’s quoted it before—most recently to critic Oliver Wainwright when speaking about the Foundation Louis Vuitton, a project as couture as its client.

For me, the reference seems historical in its belief in future creations, reminiscent of a time when experimentation was the height of culture. As a native Californian, I take pride in the fact that the West Coast’s history is interlocked with its identity being on the leading edge of architecture, technology, environment, politics, and entertainment. But right now the biggest architectural goings-on are backward looking: Gehry’s retrospective at LACMA, the consolidation of Eli and Edythe Broad’s collection, and the L.A. Olympic redux. Even this summer’s blockbuster Straight Outta Compton is about looking in the rear-view mirror.

Each of these examples suggests that a bolder, more radical, inventive period
has fleeted by. It is a #tbt, or “throwback Thursday,” away. Poised on the Pacific
Rim, have we become so comfortable to our edgy condition that we need to rummage in the attic to again stir things up? (To wit, postmodernism is in the air again in some schools of architecture.)

Or, perhaps looking behind is a nervous condition, a kind of conservative reflex brought on by the economic downturn from which the profession (knock on wood) is finally recovering. Architecture by its very nature is speculative. And experimentation, of course, comes with risk. Risk is not something politicians and investors particularly like. Take the L.A. River, for example: According to Gehry, the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office approached him to transform the channel into something akin to The High Line in New York, a project that opened in 2009.

While that successful linear park is a beloved example of infrastructural transformation and public-private partnership, it is a lazy precedent. Progressive six years ago, it’s an oft-repeated example suffering from the law of diminishing returns. In Seattle, the city council recently rejected a plan to transform the Alaskan Way Viaduct—a mile-long, six-acre elevated High Line style park near Pike Place Market. The project, a competing vision to James Corner Field Operations billion-dollar waterfront plan, will go to public vote in 2016.

On the flip side, Gehry Partners’ nascent studies on the L.A. River constituencies and hydrology skew toward a technofuturist narrative in which a 3-D model of the waterway and an interactive web platform aim to unify the whole of the L.A. River’s 51 miles. Perhaps activists and stakeholders would be pacified if they only donned a pair of Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles.

But maybe we keep looking backward because what is being passed off these days as innovation, invention, experimentation, or disruption is tepid. Not radical, but a warmed over approximation of something new. Over at my alma mater SCI-Arc, a place that’s pushed boundaries for more than four decades, a statement from new director Hernan Diaz Alonso reads dated, like leftovers from a Silicon Valley tech conference. “Where others drown in the complex flows of urban life, we thrive and choreograph its movements,” he wrote. “Alchemy is our craft—we turn things into gold.”

I’m all for change, and given my Berkeley upbringing, sympathetic to a little mysticism. However, I’m dubious of alchemist claims. Here and now in the Golden State, and throughout the West, ground conditions are at a critical juncture. There is more opportunity for built architectural and urban works than ever in the last decade. At the same time, rapid development is fueling inequity and displacement. While architecture may never be able to solve these issues per se, the discipline operates in this contemporary cultural milieu. Given this context, the built environment (as well as the market) is desperate for design that goes beyond simply an app, a hack, or a computational form. The time for thoughtful experimentation is neither behind us nor in some far off future—Blade Runner was set in 2019—it’s now.

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Not So Fast
710 West Grand Avenue is one of several new projects affected by recent changes to Chicago's transit-oriented development ordinance.
Courtesy Brininstool + Lynch

With two similar developments still under construction along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor on Chicago’s northwest side, local architects Brininstool + Lynch unveiled in August yet another mixed-use rental tower as notable for what it lacks as for the handsome design elements advertised in its renderings—namely, it has less than half the number of parking spaces that a development its size would typically be required to provide.

In July, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed a plan to slash minimum parking requirements in the city, more than doubling the area eligible for so-called “transit-oriented development” status. Such TODs, as they are known, have been almost uniformly hailed by urbanists yet frequently opposed by community groups wary of rising rents and sudden shifts in density.

As of press time, the new development at 710 West Grand Avenue had not yet faced the public gauntlet, but others have. Packed public meetings in the Logan Square area have exposed some deep resentment from longtime residents of the gentrifying neighborhood toward new, high-density development. At the same time, many (including this editorial page) have praised the long-overdue easing of parking requirements in Chicago, which typically compel developers to provide one parking spot per residential unit. TODs are near transit, so the need for cars is less, the argument goes, and developments near train stations can qualify for parking-to-unit ratios less than 1:1.

But as the pace of TOD development picks up, enthusiasm for the policy’s basic principle appears to be crowding out important questions about the nature of neighborhood development. What are the implications of a wide-reaching TOD program for historic preservation? For affordable housing?

Scott Rappe, a principal of Kuklinski+Rappe Architects and past president of the local chapter of the AIA, was among the most vocal proponents of 1611 West Division, which in 2012 became the city’s first TOD thanks to a project-specific ordinance. Now, though, he is worried the label could be used to justify unnecessary teardowns and unsustainable development.

“I’m a solid supporter of TOD, but the recently introduced expanded provisions are causing me some real unease,” Rappe said. Specifically he’s worried about buildings marked as “orange” or “red” in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey—usually aging historic properties on small lots that could find themselves suddenly in areas incentivized by TOD policy.

“The threat I see, in terms of quantity of threatened buildings, is not really from the big TOD developments, but from little ones,” Rappe said. “The loss of a lovely vintage/historic building is not offset by a corresponding marginal TOD benefit of one or two units.”

Rappe did a quick survey of his area, Chicago’s East Village neighborhood, and estimated dozens of buildings could be in this situation.

For its part, the TOD ordinance does require developers to meet certain requirements in order to receive the parking waiver. It offers a boost in density to developers who provide affordable housing onsite instead of down the street (as allowed by the city’s affordable requirements ordinance). And it encourages “alternative transportation” options, like car sharing and bike parking.

But the ordinance could—and should—do much more. Owners of small lots within a half-mile of a so-called “pedestrian designated street” (defined at the whim of the local alderman) can now get more rent per square foot, offering more units instead of more parking. That is a powerful incentive for new development, and a golden opportunity to encourage the right kind. Why not scrutinize projects that propose teardowns, making them go through public reviews as any planned development would? Why not trade additional parking requirement reductions for greater affordable housing incentives? Would developers turn their backs on this huge windfall if it came with a small fee to fund public reviews and neighborhood development initiatives?

Transit-oriented development is a powerful tool, and it represents a positive direction for Chicago’s denser neighborhoods. But it is not the be-all, end-all of sustainable neighborhood development.