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The Carnegie International is the oldest exhibition of contemporary art in North America, founded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1896 just one year after the first Venice Biennale. The exhibition was designed to help identify the “Old Masters of tomorrow.” The recent announcement of participating artists in the 57th iteration of the International, which opens on October 13, 2018 at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA) in Pittsburgh, is a look at who these new "old masters" might be. Curated by Ingrid Schaffner, who was chief curator at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia before taking the helm of the International in 2015, the list lives up to her reputation for taking an expansive approach to contemporary art. While only one artist has an architectural background—Saba Innab, an architect and urban researcher practicing between Amman and Beirut—several of the exhibition’s artists explore questions of territory, body, commodity, craft, agency, and spatial practice. The participants are all working on site-specific works for the CMoA, so this International will certainly be an immersive and provocative museum experience. Here’s a look at what’s to come. Innab’s work, pictured above, explores the relationship between architecture and territory, exemplified by her cast depicting the rock of Gibraltar in the 2016 Marrakech Biennale. It is fitting, then, that she will install work in dialogue with the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture, a historic collection of plaster casts of building fragments from around the world. Postcommodity, an interdisciplinary arts collective that explores “Indigenous narratives of cultural self-determination,” will also address spatial and cultural politics head-on. Their recent work, Repellent Fence (2015), for example, was a 2-mile work that consisted of 26 balloons stretching across the U.S.-Mexico border. The design of the balloons references both indigenous iconography and “an ineffective bird repellent product,” and signal unity between indigenous peoples, the land, and history. Park McArthur is a New York-based artist whose work examines notions of accessibility, agency, and the city. Her 2014 exhibition at ESSEX GALLERY, for example, gathered the improvised ramps used by twenty galleries in Lower Manhattan in a minimalist arrangement on the gallery floor. Similarly, at SFMOMA in 2017, where she displayed design drawings and improvised ramps made by family and friends to accommodate her wheelchair in everyday spaces. The Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center will host works by Jessi Reaves, known for her sculptural furniture that looks both familiar and somewhat grotesque, with common materials assembled in unsettling combinations that plays with ideas of incompletion in art and design. Reaves’ voluptuous recliners will neighbor work by Beverly Semmes and her Feminist Responsibility Project (FRP), which explore issues of censorship and the female body overlaying paint onto pages of “gentlemen’s magazines.” The FRP is one project in Semme’s practice, which otherwise operates at an architectural scale. Schaffner describes Beverly Semmes' art as flowing “from the female body and out into the landscape,” with flowing dresses the scale of a room. New Dehli-based photographer Dayanita Singh’s concern for the physical relationship between the viewer and the photograph has led her into an exploration of architectural and spatial arrangements for her work. Singh designs standalone “museums” for her photographs that, as she described in a recent talk at the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh, “liberate the photograph from the wall.” Koyo Kouoh, a Dakar-based “exhibition-maker,” will similarly take the visitor’s relationship to artwork into her own hands. Kouoh is founding artistic director of RAW Material Company in Dakar, Senegal, and for the International she will organize “Dig Where You Stand.” This exhibition within an exhibition will mine the Carnegie Museums’ collections to reconfigure the galleries devoted to “Pre-1300, African, and Asian Art.” “Koyo’s piece would be a lever for clearing this out, something the museum has wanted to do for a long time, a rupture so that we can begin again,” Schaffner said. Though probing the term “international,” the exhibition meaningfully ties into Pittsburgh’s artists and histories. Conceptual artist Mel Bochner will make a homecoming, and Pittsburgh-based artists Lenka Clayton & Jon Rubin will develop a new work based on the International’s archives. This International will feature sculptor Thaddeus Mosley, whose wooden carvings were inspired by the Internationals of the early 1950s. Photograph from the archives of Teenie Harris, a prolific photojournalist for the Pittsburgh Courier, will offer a new look at the post-industrial city’s past. Though the International opens in October, the fun is already underway. One of Schaffner’s aims is to spark “museum joy” in visitors. In fact, the curatorial team is sharing the delight of all aspects of the exhibition, from the design process to the curatorial research, through the International’s website. Wkshps founder Prem Krishnamurthy’s article chronicles the charrettes that brought the editorial, curatorial, and design teams together early in the process to, in Schaffner’s words, “design for the unknown.” Travelogue essays written by writers who weren’t with Schaffner on her extensive travel research take the reader into new territories nonetheless. Illustrator Maira Kalman’s fanciful interpretation of Schaffner’s pilgrimage to Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan and historian Markus Rediker’s analysis of Vodou Surrealism in response to a curatorial trip to the Caribbean are particularly worth a read. Following Andrew Carnegie’s ambitions for the museum, Schaffner has tasked each artist to lead a public workshop, or “Tam O’Shanter drawing session.” Thaddeus Mosley has already done a workshop on jazz playlists, and a class used coffee to paint with Ho Chi Minh City-based collective Art Labor. In April, visitors can make zines with Mimi Cherono Ng’ok and artifact critters with Lucy Skaer. With many more events to be announced in coming months, this is already a very playful and political exhibition not to be missed.
As a fitting kickoff to Earth Day weekend, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on the Environment (COTE) has announced the 2018 recipients of its COTE Top Ten Awards. Honoring ten projects that have surpassed rigorous thresholds in integration, energy use, water conservation, and wellness benchmarks, the award showcases cutting-edge buildings that are not only sustainable, but that contribute to the surrounding neighborhood. This year’s jury included:
- Michelle Addington, Dean, School of Architecture, The University of Texas Austin Austin, Texas
- Jennifer Devlin-Herbert, FAIA, EHDD. San Francisco
- Kevin Schorn, AIA, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, New York
- Julie V. Snow, FAIA, Snow Kreilich, Minneapolis
- Susan Ubbelohde, LOISOS + UBBELOHDE, Alameda, California
Another one bites the dust?
Why we need architecture critics more than ever
Earlier this week we learned that Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne would be stepping down to take on the city’s newly-created role of Chief Design Officer. The move is a bold, encouraging one that should go a long way toward, as Hawthorne put it, “raising the quality of public architecture and urban design across the city—and the level of civic conversation about those subjects,” through his employment of oversight, advocacy, competitions, forums, and more. But it’s the second part of that statement, regarding civic conversation, that, regardless of this positive development, is under siege in the architecture world. Until Hawthorne is replaced — and given the turmoil at the L.A. Times that’s no certainty— our country will have still fewer regular architectural critics at its major metropolitan news outlets. You can count them on one hand in fact: Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune, John King at the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Lamster at the Dallas Morning News, Julie Iovine at the Wall Street Journal, and Inga Saffron at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Beyond these dailies, while New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson and Curbed’s Alexandra Lange offer regular critiques, the New York Times’ critic Michael Kimmelman is M.I.A., the New Yorker has never replaced Paul Goldberger, and at The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, The Nation, The San Jose Mercury News, and Vanity Fair, Robert Campbell, Alastair Gordon, Michael Sorkin, Alan Hess and Goldberger—all talented voices, as are all the people listed above— haven’t appeared for at least half a year. Papers like The Seattle Times, the Providence Journal, and the Washington Post never replaced their outgoing critics, USA Today has never had one, and half of the nation’s ten largest cities have no critic. It goes without saying that the L.A. Times absolutely must name a new full-time architecture critic, particularly at a time when the nation's second largest city is undergoing unprecedented transformation. Without a well-positioned critical voice, the city will lack a professional to alert them to and analyze these tumultuous built changes, or an advocate to critique decisions that, as they so often do in the developer-driven city, advance private interests over the public good. (Or, on the other end of the spectrum, marginalize design through discourse and work that most people can't relate to.) A critic can and must do much more, from awakening us to triumphs in sustainability and technology to suggesting ways to minimize sprawl or enhance public space. We don’t have to always agree with them, but he or she plays an essential role in instigating and informing a vital public discourse and to alerting us to the critical role design plays in our lives. The same goes for so many of the country’s cities, where nobody is minding the store, architecturally. The results speak for themselves: an overwhelming majority of architecture, both public and private, that’s ok, fine, serviceable. But not enough. It’s an architecture that, like most of our economy, excels for the very richest individuals, corporations and cultural institutions, but offers mediocrity to almost everyone else. Architecture should and must be for everyone, across the board, from housing to retail to schools to government buildings to civic parks. It must help propel our society, and our spirits, forward through inspiration and innovation, not just provide luxury, comfort, or status. Of course, architecture criticism isn’t limited to major commercial outlets. There are fantastic voices at many design periodicals, like this one. But critics at general interest publications still, even in this fractured media landscape, have the greatest ability to reach a wide audience, outside the bubbles of design or niche journalism, who are often preaching to the converted. While the news, sports, fashion, entertainment, and financial media promote and dissect the minutiae of their fields before millions, prompting debate, feedback, and change, the architecture and construction industry — a significant force in overall U.S. GDP—is largely on the fringe of the public conversation. (One example: If you watch March Madness this week, you’ll see more college basketball critics on one telecast than you’ll find countrywide speaking to architecture. Aline Saarinen was once NBC News’ full time architecture critic, but those days of elevated exposure are long gone.) Meanwhile, critics, as with so many players in the ailing journalism world, are increasingly being sidestepped for computerized engines like Rotten Tomatoes or for blogs that aggregate other work and churn out press releases. Or even worse, for abbreviated Facebook or Twitter posts. Algorithms and big data have their place in showing us where we are, but they can’t replace analysis, critique, understanding, common sense, and heart. Having Hawthorne— along with advocates like Deborah Weintraub at the L.A. Bureau of Engineering and Seleta Reynolds at the L.A. Department of Transportation— stationed at City Hall will be bring a keen eye and a valuable voice to the official conversation. But that conversation needs to extend to a much wider public, through experts outside the city payroll. As for his new job, Hawthorne must, as he suggests he will, make his work to improve the civic realm as public as possible, ensuring that design involves everyone, not just those in power. This is a fantastic opportunity for a gifted communicator to bring the public inside a generally opaque realm through his writing, speaking, and facility for public engagement. But he also needs a partner or two (preferably more) in the media, and as more chief design officers (hopefully) pop up around the country, so must they. Architecture is not art in a gallery. Along with landscape architecture and urban design, it is a public profession. It is for the public, not despite them. We need to empower more informed voices to keep it that way.
Alan Schwartzman passes away at 95
Architect Alan Schwartzman has passed away at age 95 on March 9, 2018. Long a figure in Franco-American architectural circles, he was a founding member of AIA Europe. We first met at a luncheon in 1992 with the three other AIA members we had been able to identify in the Paris region. At the time, he was a partner with Davis Brody Bond Architects in New York City, dividing his time between Paris and Manhattan. Alan was immediately enthusiastic and helpful when I announced plans to form an AIA Chapter in Europe. He became the Chapter’s second president, serving ably in 1996 and 1997. With his wife, Ruth, who died last year, he remained a Chapter stalwart, attending Chapter meetings and events for decades. He was a man of constant and generous counsel. He was also a stickler (a word he would have liked) for detail. Alan wrote the first set of bylaws for AIA Europe in mid-1993 and adjusted them for years thereafter. He also became the Chapter parliamentarian, as one of only a handful familiar with Roberts Rules of Order. He knew the rules, and seemed to like them. In the biographical statement Alan filed with the AIA archives, in his characteristically precise handwriting, he noted that he earned a B.Eng. degree from Johns Hopkins in 1943, attended college again in 1950, and earned an M.Arch. from Pratt Institute in 1975. He also noted his birthplace as Baltimore, Maryland, to parents Isadore and Ida. He once told Françoise and me that his family ran a hardware store in the city. Alan was very good to me, freely offering advice and judgment. He was proud of his connections with the AIA. Nominated by AIA New York (his Chapter at the time), he became a Fellow of the AIA in 1976, the year of the US Bicentennial, when the AIA held its convention in Philadelphia. He served as my sponsor for Fellowship. When Alan became a member of the AIA College of Fellows 42 years ago, he earned this citation: “Through his imaginative and creative involvement in design, the practice aspects of architecture, education, and service to the profession, Alan Schwartzman has become the very personification of the complete architect.” That is also a fitting epitaph for a man who will be remembered fondly by all who knew him.
A new Philadelphia Design District to debut this April
In 1991, Philadelphia's Old City Arts Association launched the First Fridays initiative to encourage visitors to explore the art galleries that made the historic neighborhood their home. A quarter-century later, the area has been completely transformed into one of the city's premier cultural hubs, and now there's yet another reason to head to the 'hood: the brand-new Philadelphia Design District (PDD). The new collective celebrates the independent design businesses—showrooms, workshops, galleries, and shops—in the area spanning from Second and Third Streets to Market and Race. The PDD will make its official debut this spring with a showcase curated by design studio Mona Rose Berman Interiors that will run from April 14 to 28 at the new LEED Gold–certified Bridge apartment building by Gluck+. The first of its kind in Philadelphia, a city with a rich history of manufacturing and design, the PDD unites 11 founding members, including Moderne Gallery, a city staple for art deco designs and the work of George Nakashima; Mode Modern, the city's go-to destination for midcentury modern designs; Wexler Gallery, which represents contemporary names like Gulla Jónsdóttir; the multidisciplinary art practice Biello Martin Studio; and more. More events will be scheduled in the future, but in the meantime, be sure to check out Philadelphia's newest design destination.
In a city as old as Philadelphia, it says a lot when a neighborhood is deemed of particular historical significance by the city's citizens. One such stretch in the City of Brotherly Love is Jewelers Row, a block-long concentration of retailers known for being the nation's oldest (and second-largest) diamond district. So when Philly 'burb–based developer Toll Brothers proposed a 29-story residential tower that would require demolishing a handful of Sansom Street buildings, it's no surprise that some in the city fought back. Now, after the latest version of the proposed project was unveiled by SLCE Architects for Toll Brothers, Pulitzer Prize–winning Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron is weighing in on the tower's latest iteration, deriding the building as an "architectural zombie." But that's not the only target of her criticism; Saffron also places some of the blame for its blandness on the city's Civic Design Board. The most recent renderings show an anodyne 24-story glass tower with a series of simple setbacks rising above the brick-lined street. Beyond the incongruity of the design, Saffron calls out the project as a missed opportunity for architectural expression. She places the blame not only on SLCE and Toll Brothers, but also on the city's Civic Design Board, which was founded in 2011 ostensibly to raise the city's level of architectural design by vetting all large projects. The problem, she suggests, is that the board can't outright veto a poor building, leaving developers the ability to apply again and again with simple concessions rather than innovative reimagining. In the case of the Jewelers Row project, earlier versions of the plan included the use of brick to reference the surrounding buildings, an idea that was scrapped after community feedback that the design overwhelmed the neighborhood. A subsequent plan showed an all-glass face with a pleated crown, but a row of third-floor verandas proved too controversial, leading to their removal a month later in the most recent iteration. "That’s how public relations works," Saffron says of the process, "not architectural design." And that, she argues, is the problem.
C-A-T Spells Murder
Artist Alex Da Corte brings eerie neon to New York City in a show at Karma
Artist Alex Da Corte wants you to be scared. In C-A-T Spells Murder, a new show at New York's Karma, the Philadelphia-based artist deploys neon sculpture, video, and neon painting to muse on the feeling of fear and its effects on perception.
Slow Web, pictured above, uses common building materials like vinyl siding and plywood to foreground a luminous orange neon spider's web, creating an homage to a classic symbol of creepiness. The web is partially detached from its frame, drifting off to the left. How did it break free? Is there a ghost in the house or was that just a strong, cold breeze? Another work, Good Window with Candle (Purple), pictured below, uses the same materials as Slow Web, but the shutter-flanked candle beneath an open double-hung window feels more solitary than sinister. The exhibition, which runs through March 18, is accompanied by a book of short but spooky stories and stories to bring the eerieness out of the gallery and into the world.
C-A-T Spells Murder is up through March 18 at Karma's East Village gallery (188 East 2nd Street). More details on the show and hours of operation can be found here.
Seven months after Elon Musk claimed that he had “verbal governmental approval” from the Trump administration to build an underground Hyperloop from Washington D.C. to New York City, it looks like his plans might actually come to fruition. Musk’s The Boring Company has received a permit to begin exploratory digging in Washington, D.C., for what could one day be a stop along a D.C.-Baltimore-Philadelphia-New York route. Musk has made some ambitious claims about the Hyperloop, a high-speed rail system that would reach nearly 800 miles an hour and cut the 229-mile trip between D.C. and NYC to only 29 minutes. For contrast, the fastest train in the U.S. is Amtrak’s Acela Express, which tops out at 150 miles an hour and makes the same trip in three hours. Unlike Amtrak’s light rail network, the Hyperloop system would be more akin to a supersonic subway, moving small pods of up to 16 people, or vehicles, on electrically-powered sleds between widely dispersed stations scattered through each city instead of one centralized train hub in each. Now, The Boring Company will begin excavating a vacant parking lot at 53 New York Avenue NE, near the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters, after being granted a somewhat vague permit by the D.C. government. The initial exploration is just one piece of navigating a logistical boondoggle, as The Boring Company would need to tunnel under buildings, infrastructure, utilities, roads and just about everything else if an interstate Hyperloop network were to come to fruition. The city’s Department of Transportation has reportedly been trying to determine what other permits Musk’s company would need. Still, every piece of regulatory go-ahead has helped the Hyperloop inch closer to reality. In October 2017, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan gave Musk permission to begin excavation of a 10-mile stretch of Hyperloop track for the future New York-to-D.C. line, although city leaders along the way expressed their surprise at the decision. The federal government would also need to grant the Boring Company the appropriate permits to dig under federally owned land, of which the proposed route crosses several stretches. While testing of the Boring Company’s drilling technology and ability to tunnel under urban areas is still ongoing in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, at least the company will be able to fund its endeavors; at the time of writing, Musk had sold out of promotional Boring Company flamethrowers.
Amazon announces the 20 cities that made its HQ2 shortlist
Ending months of speculation and handwringing, Amazon has announced that the company has cut its list of prospective locations for its second headquarters from 238 down to 20. Competition over HQ2, a $5 billion co-headquarters expected to bring 50,000 jobs to the area it touches down in, has been fierce, as cities submitted bids that aggressively gave away land and tax breaks to the tech giant. While Amazon had received offers from all over North America, including Canada and Mexico, their shortlist skews heavily toward the East Coast of the United States. All of the following metropolitan areas met Amazon’s requirements of having at least one million people, and zoning capable of building up to eight million square feet of office space. The full list includes: Atlanta Austin, Texas Boston Chicago Columbus, Ohio Dallas Denver Indianapolis Los Angeles Miami Montgomery County, Maryland. Nashville Newark New York Northern Virginia Philadelphia Pittsburgh Raleigh, North Carolina Toronto, Canada Washington, D.C. The selection is notable not only for the cities it includes but the locales that didn’t make the cut. Los Angeles is the only west coast city on the list despite competing bids from Seattle, which holds Amazon’s current headquarters, and cities throughout California. Detroit is absent, as is Baltimore, even as both cities had promised to give Amazon hundreds of developable acres. Tax considerations seem to have played a major role in the final decision, as the inclusion of two cities in Texas, as well as Nashville and other southern cities and regions might attest to. While none of the Mexico-based bids made it through to the final round, Toronto may have been chosen for the money Amazon could save owing to the weakened Canadian dollar; $1 USD at the time of writing is worth $1.25 CAD. Details on what these 20 metropolitan areas have offered Amazon in exchange for HQ2 have been hard to come by. Muckrock has been tracking down bid packages for all 238 of the areas that submitted initial proposals, and while many of them have refused to release detailed packages, giving away unrestricted development rights or heavy tax breaks have been common. Chicago, for instance, has offered to return 50 to 100 percent of the income tax collected from Amazon employees straight back to the company itself. Newark, New Jersey, has explicitly offered to give Amazon a $7 billion tax break, which is the highest among any of the other finalists. New York, for its part, had offered potential space in four neighborhoods across three boroughs: Midtown West, Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn "Tech Triangle" between Downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and DUMBO, and Long Island City. The RFP for HQ2 can be read here, and should give some idea of what the headquarters will mean for the winning city when Amazon chooses its final location later this year.
When Frank Stella moved to New York in 1958 he frequented the Cedar Tavern, a University Place hangout of the Abstract Expressionists and Beat writers. At the same time, he met Richard Meier, and he agreed to let the young architect draw and paint in his painting studio while he was at the tavern. This studio share began a nearly sixty-year friendship between the two that has lasted to this day. A small but captivating exhibition, Richard Meier And Frank Stella: Space And Form documents this friendship and traces their professional collaboration. The exhibition was organized and curated by Terence Riley and is currently on view at the Meier Gallery, a small white box exhibition space in The Surf Club, the architect’s new residential building in Miami Beach, Florida. Riley begins the exhibition with a reproduced rendering of a jointly designed water fountain and public sculpture submitted for a 1963 Philadelphia competition. This project was never built, but Riley makes the point that Meier, at his own insistence, continued to place Stella wall reliefs, paintings, or sculptures in his presentation renderings, even though clients never purchased the works along with the completed building. Later, Stella took up residence in Meier-designed apartment, and the architect hung his friend’s work in prominent spots in both his office and home. They did collaborate on the Giovannitti family home in Pittsburg where Meier’s rigid white geometric facade included a series of Stella designs that look like an architect’s French curve. Another project, Meier’s 2000 Church of the Year sketch for Rome, clearly shows the influence of Stella’s abstract drawings. Riley focuses on their years-long dialogue with displays of photographs of joint projects, drawings, collages and a model of a Stella museum proposal. A black maquette by Stella is, Riley claims, a preparatory object that might be a museum. The model is more sculpture than finished building, but is it a physical proposal? “That is the $64,000 question,” Riley said. “Frank refers to it as a sculpture and architecture interchangeably. I think, as a maker, he sees things incredibly fluidly until it becomes something.” The exhibit has several of Meier’s architecturally-themed collages and several fuzzy photographs of old renderings of building projects, but never mind the lack of archival material in this show: what matters is Riley’s commitment to showing how the two masters have influenced each other throughout their careers. The small exhibit was a highlight of the recent Art Basel and Design Miami week, and it will remain open at the Surf Cub through March 4, 2018. Richard Meier And Frank Stella: Space And Form The Meier Gallery at the Surf Club 9011 Collins Avenue, Miami Through March 4, 2018 More information is available here.
Form Follows Fear
New U.S. Embassy in London fails to face its neighbors
Marking its first project on U.K. shores, KieranTimberlake Architects’ U.S. Embassy in South London is finally complete. The Philadelphia firm was the winner of a competition launched by the American Embassy in London in 2008. Now the Embassy’s new location in Nine Elms, just off the banks of the River Thames, will open a decade later this January. An official opening date is still pending, as the status of President Donald Trump’s inaugural state visit hangs in the balance due to a concern about widespread protests. Indeed, worries about security dominate the current U.S. Embassy in London, particularly after spate of attacks on other American consulates. Nestled in a Georgian enclave in Mayfair, the current Embassy, Eero Saarinen’s Grade II Listed structure from the 1950s, is unceremoniously fenced off. Despite a crowning aluminum bald eagle, the wealth of bollards that precede the fencing means the embassy's current locale is decidedly lacking in freedom. After surveying 40 possible locations, the U.S Embassy is moving to an even safer compound, one it can truly control. The architects didn’t have a say in curtailing this aspect; a prescribed 100-foot “seclusion zone” meant the embassy’s relationship to the site was never going to be an open one. However, some efforts have been made to make the notion of security less explicit. A bioswale in the form of a semi-circular pond (essentially half a moat), fortified hedges, and a gabion wall have all been sunk below ground level to make the embassy seem less stand-offish from afar. From this distance, KieranTimberlake’s work stands out as a crystalline cube from its brick-clad neighbors. On three sides of the 213-foot-tall structure are ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) sails which act as a shading device. James Timberlake, a partner at the architecture firm, stressed the need to “filter all that enters,” listing “people, air, and even materials.” Birds too are kept out through star-spangled fritting found on the northern-facing façade, the only side free from the ETFE sails. But if the outside dazzles, which it almost does at night, the embassy's interiors are severely lacking. For those who can’t get or see in, you’re not missing out. Although Ambassador Woody Johnson pushed the idea that his embassy’s architecture was “outward-looking,” evidence of this is hard to come by. Inside, it becomes apparent that the sails block fantastic views out onto the river from the east and west sides of the building. As if a brief which stipulated such high levels of security wasn’t enough to strangle the life out of the building, striving for LEED Platinum status through the enormous shading sails has shot the architects in the foot. Perhaps because it is now on Brexit-bound soil, there is further evidence of insularity at a granular scale as well. The embassy, to the annoyance of at least one employee, is filled only with U.S. plug sockets "bar a few Brit outlets.” Besides a serene visa waiting hall and the ground floor lobbies, one of which features work from British artist Rachel Whiteread, the other Gensler-designed interior levels shown to journalists are remarkably boring. Interior gardens and garden balconies offer a sorry attempt at adding American charm. Their inclusion results in the embassy feeling more like a high-security Holiday Inn. This anodyne, ultra-safe approach seems to have leaked into the building's surroundings as well. A nauseatingly large amount of generic apartment blocks surrounds the embassy. They fall under the umbrella of “New London Vernacular,” a term that arose during Boris Johnson's mayoralty to encourage historically sensitive design. Though most of the area is still under construction, what's built so far already hints at the non-place that the $20-billion Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area (VNEB), of which the embassy is a part, is set to become. In this bland context, the consulate’s isolationism as expressed in its distinctive facade may, in fact, be its best quality. One thing the embassy wasn’t fearful of though, was spending big. At $1 billion, it is the most expensive embassy in the world. You have to wonder, where did all that money go?
Plazas in Peril
Why are we wrecking our best modernist landscapes?
This is a feature article from Issue 8 of The Architect's Newspaper. If you’ve seen the movie Columbus, you’ll remember, among all the nerdy dialogue about modernist bank branches and James Polshek’s buildings, that scene where the two protagonists passionately discuss the Dan Kiley landscape outside the Eero Saarinen–designed Miller House. No? That’s because landscape architecture, though intrinsic to the experience of some of the best modern buildings, rarely gets the conversation it deserves. Despite being featured in all the film’s promo shots, the landscape by one of the last century’s best landscape architects got zero shout-outs. This snub, brought to light by the Cultural Landscape Foundation Executive Director Charles Birnbaum in a Huffington Post op-ed, reflects larger attitudes toward landscape architecture in the United States. It’s a long-held and frequently heard complaint inside the discipline that even successful landscapes by the very best designers are treated like scenery for architecture. While New Yorkers love Central Park, concrete plazas between modernist skyscrapers—even though they are essential to the experience of the buildings themselves—don’t elicit the same joy. Modern and late-modern landscapes in American cities are the least appreciated and least understood outdoor spaces, though they shape day-to-day experience in the contemporary American city more than leafy 19th-century destination parks. These modern spaces contrasted with—and challenged—the platonic ideal of the American urban park, established by Frederick Law Olmsted and largely unchanged since the 1860s. Urban renewal gave designers the opportunity to think up supersize projects (New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Boston’s Government Center, Pittsburgh’s Gateway Center, Philadelphia’s Penn Center) that afforded new ways of experiencing space and the city. Instead of offering the faux-countryside, 20th-century designers summoned concrete and right angles to create dynamic public spaces rooted in modernist functionalism. In the postwar years, as industry abandoned cities en masse and corporations moved white-collar workers to lush suburban campuses, cities and captains of industry commissioned the best landscape architects in practice to activate declining downtowns with plazas and parklets. In smaller urban projects like Heritage Park Plaza in Fort Worth, Texas, Fountain Place in Dallas, and Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis, designers like Lawrence Halprin, Kiley, and M. Paul Friedberg offered contemporary city experiences that both responded to and represented these profound changes in the American urban form. This not only applies to plazas from the boomer or Gen X era, but to Millennial landscapes, too. Just as chokers and platform sandals are cool again, designers are expressing renewed interest in successful 1990s postmodern landscapes, like Wagner Park or Pershing Square. Despite their significance, these parks are now threatened by thoughtless development. Unlike their forbearers—most of which were baked into city plans or carved from large swaths of open space—modernist landscapes like Freeway Park in Seattle shaped vestigial areas, harnessed from leftover space (like vest-pocket Paley Park in Manhattan), or repurposed former industrial land (Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco). In their comparatively tiny areas, designers deployed textural materials like concrete, gridded trees into mini urban forests, and masked obtrusive city sounds with water features. Despite their historic significance, these sites are constantly imperiled by bad maintenance, and the public antipathy that follows—“What’s with all that concrete, and where are all the flowers?” While it can take decades for an artist’s work to be appreciated, as Halprin noted, landscapes and the land on which they sit are often at the mercy of changing real estate interests and don’t have time to mature in the public perception. Though some, maybe most famously Boston’s Government Center, are wildly unsuccessful and are being (sensitively) adapted right now, many upgradeable landscapes whose potential could be teased out with thoughtful changes are instead being plowed over with heavy-handed schemes that dishonor the original design intent. Maybe because they are underappreciated, many postwar urban parks and plazas are threatened by market forces and dumb human decisions: out-of-place nearby development, revamps that turn parks into front lawns for speculative real estate, rising downtown land values, and, paradoxically, resilience measures that anticipate future coastal flooding. Compared to buildings, landscapes have fewer protections afforded to them. Since June, there’s one less: The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the demolition of a Sasaki fountain and plaza that anchored the base of Citicorp Center, a suave Hugh Stubbins–designed 1970s angle-topped tower on Lexington Avenue at 53rd Street. The architect would faint if he were around to see the flowerbeds proposed for the base of his building. Though developments like these can be jarring, the cities around these landscapes have changed substantially, too. After fleeing in the mid-20th century, people and prosperity have returned to cities. Though regional development is always uneven, there’s a persistent and widespread demand for walk-to-work neighborhoods with a healthy mix of day-into-night life. Downtown is hot. And tastes have changed, too. As megaprojects like Hudson Yards and smaller regional ones like SWA’s San Jacinto Plaza in El Paso, Texas, demonstrate, there’s a desire for more programmed space, with Ping-Pong tables and colorful, interactive public art. These landscapes reflect a turn from urban production to urban consumption; though the social life of these public spaces still includes people-watching and book-reading (or phone-staring), spaces are increasingly programmed around shopping, tourism, and scenery that’s good content for Instagram. Planners today promote infill housing and mixed-use everything, so visitors to these downtown parks are, increasingly, residents too. Outside of a few true classics that have never lost their luster, how do modernist landscapes fare against their newer predecessors? For this feature, we chose some of the notable urban landscapes of that era currently under redevelopment to assess where they are now, and how they’re being adapted—or not—for the future. Their designers never intended for their landscapes to be built and forgotten. There’s little to love in badly patched concrete, treeless planters, or dry fountains. We’re looking anew at famous landscapes by the best of the best and at those that are less familiar. Some honor the landscape architect’s original design intent, while others…don’t. Preservation isn’t about ossifying landscapes in some vintage ideal, but framing updates around the original design intent. Across the country, designers are looking at landscapes with consideration of their significance while adapting them for contemporary knowledge of ecology, accessibility, and programming. In a May 2017 talk at the National Capital Planning Commission in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Meyer, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, explained why landscapes of the 1950s through the 1980s are significant today: They are a record of postwar modernization and urbanization, and they should be reimagined—not cast in amber—for the 21st century. “Adapting modernist landscapes does not require demolition and redesign,” Meyer said. Just like the designers who revamped the 19th-century city park in the 1970s, these projects will need careful updates for today’s users, made with intelligent materials, to facilitate life in the present while looking back to history, not to pickle the past but to energize urban life.