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See the Grand Palais submerged in a virtual waterfall in 3D projection mapping design by Japanese art collective teamLab
On April 9 and 10, the Institute for Public Architecture and Pratt Institute School of Architecture held “An Inventory of What’s Possible,” a symposium organized to discern what can be done to implement Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to build 200,000 affordable housing units in the next ten years. The event consisted of visits to a variety of different public and supportive housing projects from various eras throughout the city, in addition to talks by professors, students, city officials, community activists, and the president of a residents’ association. They discussed new ideas, historic projects, problems, possible solutions, and opportunities that the current affordable housing crisis presents.
On April 9, participants toured housing ranging in time from Strivers Row by James Brown Lord, Bruce Price, and Stanford White (1893) to Via Verde by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw (2012) and in space from Roland Wank’s Grand Street housing in Lower Manhattan to Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s Sunnyside Gardens in Queens and Twin Parks in the north Bronx. Richard Meier; Prentice, Chan & Olhausen; and Giovanni Pasanella all have buildings at Twin Parks. The tour drove home the point that New York City’s legacy is remarkable for its range, quality, and continuing success. It also showed that there are lessons to be learned—both positive and negative—from what has been built in the past.
After welcomes by Pratt Dean Thomas Hanrahan, and professor and AN editor-in-chief William Menking, panel discussions furthered historical perspectives, provided views of neighborhood activists, and presented new ideas about ways to attack the affordable housing crisis.
Jonathan Kirschenfeld, the founder of the Institute for Public Architecture, who had designed some of the housing visited the day before, noted, “We have 50 years of research on the public realm at Pratt in the institute founded by Ron Shiffman (Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, or PICCED) and now directed by Adam Freeman. Housing—and the way we think about the public realm and the interior realm—defines our humanity as a city. New York is the quintessential innovator in thinking about housing in a dense place, willing to take chances and create new types of housing.”
Karen Kubey, who directs the Institute for Public Architecture, mentioned "Total Reset" an Institute Fellows residency program on public and below-market housing that took place last summer, noting that Michael Kimmelman had covered it enthusiastically in “Trading Parking Lots for Affordable Housing,” in The New York Times on September 14.
Later in the day, when Institute Fellows presented the findings from their work, Miriam Peterson, Nathan Rich, and Sagi Golan described the “9 x 18” plan that Kimmelman had praised. They proposed a new parking policy, especially in areas near pubic transportation, an attempt to create streets that promote an active lifestyle.
“There is much more parking on NYCHA sites than on other urban blocks. The idea is to replace parking lots with parking structures that house community facilities,” said Golan.
“A lot of the residents were willing to trade parking space for other amenities.” Another Institute Fellow, Kaja Kuhl, a Columbia GSAPP professor who goes to five neighborhoods every year with the 5 Borough Studio, talked about the importance of starting a conversation with each community. She uses “Postcards from Home” to learn how the residents view “home” and found that they see it as “neighborhood and community,” “privacy,” and even “food.” She said, “We heard that housing should be affordable,” and she showed some of the student projects that were inspired by these conversations. At the Forest Houses in the Bronx, students looked at the schools that surround the NYCHA development as a place to share school facilities like a library, a gymnasium, and computer labs with each other and with NYCHA residents by putting them on the housing authority campus.
Frederick Biehle, a Pratt professor and principal of VIA Architecture, had also considered restoring streets and reshaping the urban fabric in his studio that focused on the Ingersoll and Whitman Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He suggested “delineating public, semipublic, and private spaces” to counter the “sameness and banality” of the existing buildings. The studio proposed a new two-story base connecting two existing towers with semi-private space for residents and an interior courtyard with new institutional programs—a skating rink, a school, stores. “Each individual building gets to determine its own block. The metastasized scheme doubles the number of units, but the buildings’ lower floors become more porous. Townhouses face the street.” He described a number of possibilities and noted, “It’s amazing that so many successful, doable projects were proposed.”
In a morning session on “Stabilizing Neighborhoods,” the moderator was Daniel Hernandez, the Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and a Pratt professor. He noted the importance of early engagement in identifying issues and then implementing them, since “it’s a moment when there is a lot of cultural change going on in the agencies.”
NYIT Professor Nicholas Bloom described the promise of subsidized coops and said, “The word ownership comes up often in the mayor’s document.” He talked about the success of earlier subsidized coops, such as Village View in Manhattan and the Luna Park Co-op in Coney Island, which encouraged residents to take care of their neighborhoods. He proposed that NYCHA create a subsidiary to build some of these on their land on a nonprofit model, similar to what is done in Singapore. They might be built with FEMA funds in some areas, would “put more eyes on the street,” and might be step-up housing for some NYCHA families. “There has to be a less strident conversation about underused land in NYCHA communities,” he said.
Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, a principal of Buscada who teaches at the New School for Public Engagement, discussed the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). She described it as “a big mess but one that is interesting.” In 1967, families were driven out but told that they could return when new housing was built. However, not enough was built for many families to return. She emphasized the importance of perpetuity in communities.
Benjamin Dulchin, who is a community organizer, not an architect, represents the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Developmentan, an umbrella organization for 101 community development groups. He is trying to help neighborhoods set agendas and develop policies by studying what has worked and what conditions made success possible. He said that while it is important to build permanently affordable housing, it is also necessary to focus on crime, economic development, and institutions to sustain a community.
Paula Segal, the executive director of 596 Acres, an organization that advocates for community gardens spoke, unsurprisingly, in favor of their preservation and of ownership of land by communities. She is particularly opposed to giving gardens to for-profit developers.
In a discussion period after their talks, Ron Shiffman said, “Displacement and speculation on land has become palpable in every neighborhood of New York. A lot of good planning came from neighborhood-based organizations. Let’s start integrating some of the wealthiest communities.”
Pratt faculty member Meredith TenHoor chaired a panel on Enabling Quality Design. She noted that in the 1970s, when cities were seen as failing, it was often the design of housing that was blamed.
Suzanne Schindler, who teaches at Columbia, discussed another historic example—Twin Parks in the Bronx (1967–75), which participants had visited the day before. She described the interesting variety of buildings, built by a group of 15 churches and synagogues with help from the state and federal governments and designed by well-known architects. The 2,300 apartments ranging from studios to five bedrooms “were created to stabilize the neighborhood but gang warfare happened right there.” She asked, “What can we learn?” and answered, “It all depends, not just on design but on how a project is managed,” showing a single loaded corridor completely blocked, plazas fenced in, she added, “You need to think about design along with management, security, and other factors.”
Pratt professor David Burney commissioned innovative community centers from celebrated, mostly young architects when he was in charge of architecture at NYCHA in the 1990s and then headed the city’s Department of Design and Construction during the Bloomberg Administration. “When I got to NYCHA, I found that there was still some money left for buildings but it was hard to spend. You couldn’t build unless you could provide free land and use the low income tax credit. The Reagan Administration insisted on private developers, and the early attempts had been disastrous,” he said. They found a community garden on West 84th Street and hired Castro-Blanco Piscioneri Architects to build 35 permanently affordable units. With Becker + Becker, they built two- and three-bedroom apartments in a contextual walkup building on 8th Street; at 189 Stanton Street they built supportive housing for families with AIDS designed by James McCullar. “There are ways of doing things that are different. All these projects are completely integrated into their neighborhoods,” he pointed out.
TenHoor then asked the speakers, “How do we get quality? Who defines those standards?” Menking said, “At Sunnyside, the architects were deeply committed to quality and social scientists were part of it.” He also noted the role that philanthropy had played in the past, citing Phipps Houses, The Robin Hood Foundation, and Common Ground. Burney suggested, “Reverse the notion that design costs money, that design is only for the wealthy.” He also said, “As every architect knows, when you get to the end of the project, it’s the landscaping that gets cut.” He noted the importance of “health and the built environment. We are not number one in many things, but we are number one in obesity.” TenHoor mentioned the role of the private sector, noting that Mayor Lindsay advocated it and that it attracted architects of the caliber who designed Twin Parks. Schindler mentioned “long term issues and short term issues. If someone is going to maintain it, they may build it differently.”
Toward the end of the day, the president of the residents association at the five-story walkup First Houses (1936), Brendaliz Santiago, presented the tenants’ point of view. “NYCHA doesn’t communicate with tenants,” she said, “but we want community residents involved in planning.” Since New Years Eve 2014, though, she has been working closely with NYCHA. “With unity there is power.”
Karina Totah, Senior Advisor to the Chair of the New York City Housing Authority, explained, “The mayor gave the chair two directions: Reset your relationship with key stakeholders and create a plan for how you are going to make NYCHA survive.”She said, “Safe, clean, and connected is the goal,” and that engaging residents like Santiago to get resident input is a priority as well as dealing with short term financial problems, rehabilitating, and harnessing the real estate NYCHA already owns, and operating 138,000 units. “We are the largest landlord in New York City,” she added.
The two-day event brought together architects, professors, students, community organizers, residents, and managers of housing projects. The conversation necessary to jumpstart Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious housing plan has begun.
The dean of an East Coast architecture school was recently asked, “do you still teach your students hand drawing?” “No,” he responded, “and we don’t use slide rules or Rapidograph pens. Students today come to us as totally embedded in the digital world and that’s how they communicate and think.
Yet here at AN we seem to receive a book or peer review journal nearly every week on the importance of freehand drawing in architectural practice. There is no question that buildings are no longer constructed following pages of hand drawings—that it is now entirely digital and the process is smoother and more precise for it. In addition, there is a digital divide still in the profession between those who trained and began practice doing hand drawings and those who learned entirely on a computer. Richard Meier famously goes nowhere near a computer. He gives his hand drawings to a computer savvy office worker to translate into useable digital files. The late Michael Graves, according to J. Michael Welton, who recently published Drawing From Practice, believed, “computers are now taking the architect away from what he and others call ‘humanism.’” More convincingly, Graves also claimed, “a drawing leaves the question open, and leads to the next drawing.” A computer, he argued, does the opposite. “It wants the finality of closing the question.
The beautiful watercolor drawings by Steven Holl are a testament to the power a hand drawing can still have in the design process. The real question is whether it is still necessary or even helpful for architects to know how to do a quick and simple hand sketch or rendering? Is anything more lost by architectural design and representation being filtered through a mouse pad than when writers changed from typewriters to computers?
Drawings are in some way drawings whether they are done by hand or a computer. Peter Cook, for one, claims, “one or two of us don’t much care whether the drawing itself is covered in lead and sweat, caressed by layers of sediment or watercolor, is a partly photo-shopped manipulation, is caressed by the soothing characteristics of Maya, or dragged at extra speed through a printing machine.” It is that quick transformation of an idea represented on a page before it goes into CATIA or Rhino that is the most exciting part of the design process and how it is expressed, represented, and communicated. Carlo Scarpa famously wrote, “I place things in front of me, on the paper, so I can see them. I want to see, therefore I draw. I can see an image only if I draw it.” There is still an open question whether computer drawings have this immediacy—let alone the poetry and design of the best hand rendering. In the late 1960 and 70s, as conceptual and video art swept through the art schools, artists did not drop drawing and painting. Much of today’s most compelling art is a synthesis of all these modes of presentation. Likewise, schools of architecture should not take a one-size-fits-all approach to representation and exclusively teach the digital.
It is likely we are in the middle of a change in design production similar to the moment Brunelleschi left the workshop and went into a quiet room to draw. But architecture schools should continue to promote the idea of collage in representation, so that all ideas are displayed equally, not flattened by design programs onto a monitor.
He was a master of invention, and his ability to adapt propelled him to become not only a household name, but one of the most influential architects of his time. Over a 50-year career, he produced a body of work that both reflected and raised questions about the transitional era of which he was a part. In a global market increasingly driven by social media and visual imagery, he showed a way for architects and designers to distinguish themselves through branding, and to help their clients do the same.
Architect Michael Graves, who died on March 12 at 80, started as a wipe-the-slate-clean modernist but grew dissatisfied with the sterility of modern design and eventually embraced history and precedent as a way to add richness and meaning to architecture. He became one of America’s leading representatives of the architectural movement known as postmodernism. He was part of an early wave of “starchitects” who were recognized and won commissions because they had a distinctive, identifiable style. Some of Graves’ best work evinced a warmth and playfulness that echoed the exuberance of the 1980s and captivated clients, such as Michael Eisner at Disney.
Graves was equally well known for designing toasters, tea kettles, and other household products for manufacturers and retailers including Alessi, Target, and JCPenney. He promoted his designer housewares with such aplomb that he became as well known as the stores that stocked them. His showmanship helped pave the way for other celebrity designers to create product lines for retailers, including Martha Stewart for Macy’s, Diane von Furstenberg for GapKids, and Karl Lagerfeld for H&M.
Confined to a wheelchair for the last 12 years of his life due to a spinal cord infection, Graves reinvented himself as a “reluctant healthcare expert.” In that capacity, he focused on improving products and healing environments for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, including America’s “wounded warriors” returning from military service.
In one area Graves did not change over time: As a Princeton University architecture professor for 39 years, during the advent of computer-aided design, he remained a staunch advocate of freehand drawing as the best way to think about and design buildings. His own lavish drawings and paintings offered a beguiling counterpoint to AutoCAD. He also refused to cede the job of designing building interiors to interior designers and space planners, preferring to design the whole building whenever possible.
Through it all Graves remained a strong willed provocateur and change agent, who gained an almost cult like following at Princeton and came to national prominence by questioning the status quo. Why can’t buildings be more welcoming? Why are hospitals so depressing? Why can’t good design be for everyone, at every scale? His timing was impeccable, in that he began his career at a time when modernism was no longer new and many architects were ready to explore other directions. Though he is associated with postmodernism, a label he resisted, Graves might more usefully be remembered as a proponent of humanistic design, an approach rooted firmly in the awareness and study of the human body, historic precedent, and context.
Graves became acquainted with the limelight early in his career, largely because of his education and connections. Born in Indianapolis in 1934, he studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University in the 1950s. He won the Rome Prize in 1960 and spent two years studying at the American Academy in Rome. After returning to the U.S., he began teaching at Princeton University in 1962 and founded his architecture practice in 1964. Early in his career, along with Richard Meier, John Hejduk, Charles Gwathmey, and Peter Eisenman, he was named one of the New York Five, a group of architects who adhered to modern design tenets. By the late 1970s, he had broken away from that approach and began designing buildings known for their color, ornament, and classicist forms.
Graves’ breakthrough project, and one that clearly signaled his shift away from modernism, was his competition–winning design for the 15-story Portland Municipal Services Building, which opened in 1982 and was considered the first major postmodern building in the United States. Colored in blue, green, salmon, and cream, and featuring ornamentation that some likened to gift wrapping on a holiday package, the building spoke in a new language for architecture and put Graves at the forefront of the postmodern movement, with which he was thereafter inextricably linked.
Over the course of his career, Graves designed more than 350 buildings around the world and more than 2,500 products. Besides the Portland Building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, his portfolio included the Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky, the Denver Public Library, the San Juan Capistrano Library in California; the Michael Eisner Building in Burbank, California for the Walt Disney Company, featuring the Seven Dwarves as caryatids; the Swan and Dolphin hotels for Disney in Orlando, Florida; and scaffolding for the Washington Monument while it was undergoing renovation. He drew widespread attention for his renovation of “The Warehouse,” his residence in Princeton. In the 1980s, he designed an expansion for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, but it drew strong opposition and was never built.
OBRA Architects works out of a snug loft space in Tribeca. Nearly every corner and surface is brimming with models, drawings, and delicate sketches. It is a fitting space for the 12-person practice, whose diverse body of work—including cultural institutions, schools, pavilions, residences, and emergency housing—reflects a sensitive, hands-on approach that values unfussy, contextual design.
The two founders, Pablo Castro and Jennifer Lee, established their firm in 2000 after working together at Richard Meier & Partners, and then later at Steven Holl Architects. While often flying under the radar, they have worked on some high profile projects, such as their winning installation, BEATFUSE! for the MoMA/P.S. 1 Young Architects Program in 2006. Together, they have accumulated an impressive portfolio that demonstrates their ability to conceive modern, yet often vernacular-inspired buildings, that quietly respond to place, and which are born out of a fluid, ever-evolving process.
“Sometimes there is a crystal clear idea that comes out the first day you start thinking about something and then everything organizes around that. And other times, that idea is not so crystal clear and you have to pull it out of thinking and feel through the work itself,” explained Castro. “So in a way, the work gets ahead of the idea and by doing the work, the idea develops.”
In the last few years, Castro and Lee have expanded their practice, opening up an office in China, where much of their work has been based. This surge of commissions evolved out of an invitation they received in 2008 from artist Ai Weiwei, along with 100 other international architects, to participate in a project called ORDOS100. Since then, they have participated in a number of exhibitions and completed several projects in China, including the Inside Out Museum in Beijing and prototypes for emergency housing called RED+HOUSING organized by the National Art Museum of China.
“It is good sometimes not to know exactly what you’re doing so you don’t close yourself off to possibilities you otherwise might not consider. We try to make it a relatively rational process but there is a fair amount of the unexpected,” said Castro. “It is about enticing the unexpected or the unanticipated to come forward.”
Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
This far-flung retreat, sited on a former mango farm, in the middle of the rainforest was built for a nature-loving doctor and his family. The firm sought to engage with the tropical landscape by building a house, composed of a series of open rooms, which extends from the top of a hill down to the bottom, looking out onto Golfo Dulce to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Each space is connected through stepped ramps, shielded by a sloped roof, enclosing two gardens. These walled green spaces are designed to protect the owners from the poisonous snakes that emerge at night. The temperate climate allows for the house to be fairly exposed to the outdoors, with a completely open living room and simple fenestration in all three bedrooms, outfitted with just netting and louvers. Understated, yet modern forms and locally sourced materials—such as reinforced concrete, stucco, and wood from native trees—define the structure, while keeping it within a tight budget.
The Winemaker’s House
San Juan, Argentina
Designed for a winemaker and his wife—who also happens to be OBRA Architects principal Pablo Castro’s father—this compact, yet airy two-story home, situated in the arid wine country of Argentina, employs strategies to take full advantage of the region’s intense light. The house, made up of rectangular volumes, subtly melds the outdoor spaces with the interior. On the ground floor, where the dining room and living room are located, a prominent stairway carves geometric shapes into the space as it rises above a pool of water and leads up to the bedrooms, as if “crossing a lake” explained Castro. The light then bounces off the pool and enters the stairwell, casting long shadows as people walk up and down, reminiscent Castro said of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. The 1,200-square-foot house is primarily constructed of reinforced concrete and brick, with the facades rendered in a white stucco and wood windows made by a local cabinetmaker. Trellis structures create leafy enclaves where vines snake up the sides of the house.
Sanhe City, China
Part of a large residential development outside of Beijing, Sanhe Kindergarten is a thoughtful response to the country’s prescribed set of standards for pre-school education, by emphasizing light, space, and efficiency. Composed of 18 classrooms for 550 students, the 59,200-square-foot building is configured into three wings designed to make the scale more comfortable for small children. The classrooms, facing the south, are designed to emulate a New York City loft with high ceilings, abundant daylight, an elevated sleeping mezzanine for nap time (to save teachers time from having to constantly rearrange furniture), and direct access to areas of recreation through terraces or entries out to the playground. Terraces are connected through exterior stairways to permit fluid movement between the indoor and outdoor spaces so students can interact more freely. Tying the building into the local architectural landscape, the firm clad the facade in a grey-blue brick that is commonly used throughout Beijing.
San Juan, Argentina
Located in a new residential neighborhood on the western edge of the city of San Juan, this seven-unit apartment complex is positioned on a diagonal to extend the length of the facade, allowing for more windows to maximize light while mitigating solar gain. A matrix of small, equally spaced windows provide views of the Andes Mountains and keep the sun at bay during the summer. Built in brick and finished in cement stucco, the 5,000-square-foot building is painted in white to further reduce heat absorption. Two triangular gardens to the north and south of the building, including thorny mimosa trees, create a shaded reprieve for tenants on the ground floor. A circular planter encircles the rooftop terrace, which also features a small pool, barbeque pit, and gazebo for eating.