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Something to Believe In
Projects like The Ridge, which is set to become the nation's largest Passive House, could become more common as the world's architects move toward net-zero construction.
COURTESY ONION FLATS

At its recent World Congress in Durban, South Africa, the International Union of Architects (UIA) set a critical goal for the global design and construction industries. They adopted something called the 2050 Imperative, “setting the global building sector on a path to phase out CO2 emissions by 2050.”

UIA represents 1.3 million architects from 124 countries, so it’s no offhand declaration. It’s also not the first such mission statement. Architecture 2030 issued the 2030 challenge to radically green the building sector in 2006. The American Institute of Architects quickly took up that charge, as did the U.S. Green Building Council, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Congress for the New Urbanism, among others.

Now as the supporting organization for UIA’s imperative, Architecture 2030 is joining the world’s architectural professional societies to “send a strong message” to the parties of the United Nations, who will meet in Paris next year to set a roadmap for reducing emissions. This is an important and necessary step, as the very name of the “imperative” implies—buildings consume 75 percent of all the electricity produced in the U.S. and are responsible for about half of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But the design community has to hold itself accountable.

A leaked copy of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts” are likely if swift action is not taken to curb the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. But “strong messages,” however admirable and well-meaning, have not produced meaningful action in at least 20 years of international negotiations on the subject. Since the U.N. climate convention first recognized the urgency of the problem on an international scale in 1992, greenhouse gas emissions have risen 57 percent.

We’re not even slowing down. In fact, we’re accelerating. Emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades. Much of that is due to industrialization in Asia, and urbanization is not slowing down. Over the next twenty years, it’s projected that an area roughly equal to 60 percent of today’s building stock will be built and rebuilt in the world’s urban areas. In other words, even if every one of the buildings built in the next two decades were twice as efficient as today’s average building, we’d still see a huge increase in building-related emissions.

That’s not to say the building sector has been idle. The UIA’s imperative opens by recalling the 1993 Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future, made here in Chicago, which committed to “place environmental and social sustainability at the core of our practice and professional responsibilities.” Code improvements, energy benchmarking, and a healthy debate over sustainable design metrics (which AN explored in our June feature) are just some of the ways the field is making progress.

And the UIA’s imperative includes broader initiatives like planning carbon-neutral cities, which is critical in developing nations where today’s building booms could either lock in catastrophic levels of carbon pollution or lay the groundwork for a climate recovery.

But architects can’t do it alone. The upcoming IPCC report affirms something author and activist Bill McKibben once called “global warming’s terrifying new math”: fossil fuel companies and governments have found oil and gas reserves several times larger than the amount that scientists say we can burn without throwing the climate out of control. That’s a transformational challenge that transcends design and construction, as important as those industries are.

Something about the UIA’s 2050 “imperative” itself encapsulates the angst of following the growing climate crisis today: it’s both affirming and frustrating to read. With no attempt to hide its toothlessness, it tacitly acknowledges the dizzying scope of the problem (made significantly wider by political dithering and dysfunction). And yet it’s a critical part of the solution. Time to build the rest is running out.

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Reducing Run-off for Cleaner Waterways
Green infrastructure can help coastal New York withstand severe weather events.
Courtesy NYC Parks

In putting together AN’s annual issue dedicated to landscape architecture, it is clear that water is nearly as central to the profession as land: creating new recreational landscapes on rivers and coastal areas; managing stormwater in cities to prevent sewage overflows; boosting urban resiliency in the face of rising oceans; and reestablishing habitat to foster dynamic ecologies within urban areas. Landscape architects have been at the forefront of demonstrating the role of design in improving urban environmental conditions and in understanding the effect of these conditions within the larger world.

As effective as the landscape architect’s tool kit can be in addressing these issues, they are often limited by government agencies that are cautious or committed to entrenched ways of building. Thankfully this has begun to change. In New York City, the Parks, Transportation, Planning, and Environmental Protection departments have all adopted new standards and are channeling significant resources into green infrastructure. These efforts should be applauded and expanded further.

One department could do more, however, and that is Sanitation. New York city, for all its wealth and refurbishment in recent decades, remains a stubbornly dirty city. Walk down any major cross street or avenue and you will see garbage and litter everywhere. Street wastebaskets overflow with the detritus of New York’s busy, disposable culture: plastic bags, coffee cups, food containers, cigarette packs, etc., which invariably get blown into the street and into the drains during storms, fouling the waterways that so many are working to protect.

Lacking alleys, we New Yorkers are used to seeing our garbage front and center in the streetscape. Perhaps this has made us too immune to the overflowing trashcans and litter all around. It shouldn’t. Quite simply, New York needs more and better-designed street waste receptacles, and they need to be emptied with greater frequency, particularly in high foot-traffic areas. Local business improvement districts (BIDS) have helped clean some marquee areas, but in parts of the city not covered by BIDS, overflowing street cans and litter remain persistent problems. A design competition for such receptacles could help galvanize the design community around this issue and raise public awareness.

The city also needs to attack its culture of disposables head-on. Former Mayor Bloomberg reportedly favored a ban on plastic bags, but ultimately didn’t pursue it. Mayor de Blasio is said to be considering some kind of a tax on plastic bags, which could be a good start. There’s much more to be done though. A public education campaign centered on reusable containers and reducing disposables, along with proper waste disposal, could vastly reduce the amount of litter in our streets (and ultimately in our waterways). Each borough could boast a branded reusable bag or coffee cup and street waste reduction contests could be established between the boroughs.

That’s not to say that the Department of Sanitation lacks innovation. It has begun an outer borough composting program, which will also be used to create cleaner local energy from methane gas.

But New York needs to address its streetscape litter problems with much greater intensity. Reducing waste, and litter in particular, goes hand in hand with building green infrastructure. Residents will resist bioswales clogged with garbage. As the city continues to embrace its waterfront identity, it should also make the connection between reducing waste and cleaner waters.

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Demolish For Progress
Woodbury University's WUHO Gallery

Who would want to live in a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light? “ -Woody Allen

 

On the surface, it seems like a stunning blow to LA’s cultural community: The city is removing yet another block of small arts institutions. But this time they may do things a little better than the last time around. The Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID) has plans to tear down the block of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue in Hollywood containing Woodbury University’s WUHO Gallery, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibits (LACE) Gallery, and the Cupcake Theater in favor of a mixed-use housing development.

The department issued a request for proposals for the currently rough-around-the-edges site on July 24, calling for a about 57,000 square feet of housing, retail, and commercial development on land owned by the LA Department of Transportation. The development will make the organizations homeless for at least a year and a half, which is worrisome. But according to the RFP, the arts institutions will have “first right of refusal” to return once the development is completed, and proposals for the site are encouraged to “incorporate a lease structure that allows these tenants to be viable.”

WUHO director Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter was pleasantly surprised to see the institutions written into the RFP, even if it doesn’t yet guarantee they’ll be able to return at an affordable rate. HCID’s George Guillen said developers will be charged with facilitating temporary relocation.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” said Wahlroos-Ritter. “I’m very interested in working with the city in seeing if this becomes a visionary project. They talk about supporting this area as an arts district. One would think since we are the arts district there would be genuine support for this.

“We see them as very valuable to the city. We want them to stay,” said Guillen, of the cultural organizations.

The approach, while yet to prove itself as viable, and certainly presenting a challenge for institutions to find temporary spaces, already stands in contrast to the impending destruction, by Metro, LA County’s transit agency, of a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that contains the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, Edward Cella Art and Architecture, cultural incubator For Your Art, and gallery Steve Turner Contemporary.

That move, necessitated by a new station and staging ground for Metro’s Purple Line extension, contained no pledges to return the existing cultural organizations to the high profile area. That’s not an unusual situation for a subway project, which by its nature needs to raze buildings in favor of transit facilities. But it is unusual given that, according to the LA Times, Metro is now in discussions with LACMA about developing a tower on that site containing LACMA’s own cultural facilities, including possibly an architecture and design collection.

Los Angeles is a city known worldwide for its creative community, but it’s certainly not known as one that steadfastly protects that community’s interests. In forcing developers to compete to find creative solutions to keep cultural institutions where they are the Housing and Community Investment Department is starting to undermine that stereotype. We’ll follow closely to see if they follow up. In collaborating with LACMA to displace small arts institutions in favor of a goliath Metro is reinforcing it.

At their heart, cities are places that need to embrace culture whenever possible, not destroy it. And in a time when physical manifestations of culture are being replaced by virtual ones, we need to protect our smaller cultural spaces all the more. They add a richness, variety, and local spontaneity to the cultural mix that slow moving large entities cannot. Urban renewal can be a tool for wanton destruction, but sometimes it’s ok to tear down sites in the name of progress. But in so doing small cultural players should not be discarded, even if they don’t have the same pull as the more powerful ones.

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Get To The Galleries
The Bronx Museum

In a typical week, New York City’s museums and commercial art galleries host dozens of exhibitions and installations focused exclusively on architecture and urbanism or influenced by concepts coming out of historic or contemporary design culture. The recently closed exhibitions Italian Futurism: 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe at the Guggenheim and the parallel show Fortunato Depero at the newly opened Center for Italian Modern Art in Soho are examples of exhibits not specifically about architecture but very much about architecture culture (and the architects involved in the movement) and its enormous influence on society, politics, and the history of formal experiments. In addition, the current exhibit at The Bronx Museum (through January 11, 2015), Beyond the Supersquare, explores the indelible influence of Latin American and Caribbean modernist architecture on the region’s contemporary art, but goes beyond simply showing architecture. The Bronx exhibit includes work by young photographers, video artists, sculptors, installation, artists, and drawings by architects, all based on architectural ideas and concepts. But the exhibit also takes a stand on the meaning of modern architecture in the region and hits hard at the connections between architecture and economic, political, and social issues confronting contemporary Latin America and the Caribbean today. It investigates historic issues of modernism in the region but also looks through multiple artists’ lenses at the dynamic and explosive growth of urban centers in the region.

Hauser & Wirth Gallery

Hauser & Wirth Gallery

These are only a few examples of architecture and urbanism in the city’s exhibition spaces that make New York an unparalleled site for the display of architectural culture and an important pedagogical opportunity for the architects of Gotham. The depth and breadth of architecture culture on display in any given week in New York City was on my mind this weekend as I visited the Hauser & Wirth gallery on West 18th Street to see the extraordinary architectural sculpture Tower by young Polish artist Monika Sosnowska. Sosnowska should be better known by the architectural community as she is creating a fascinating practice investigating the early modern movement—its promises and failures—to activate social transformation and democratic reform. In most of her work she focuses on Modernism in Poland, but with Tower she takes on American and, more specifically, Miesian modernism: what it promised and how it became an emblem not of democratic reform and social equality, but of corporate branding and upper middle class lifestyle.

Sosnowska’s Tower is a torqued and twisted 110-foot-long (The Hauser & Wirth space is spectacularly large) steel 1:1 replica of the steel frame of Mies’ iconic 1951 Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago. The elegant materials wrapping this building—steel and diaphanous glass—created, she argues, a “synthesis of aesthetics and technology” and as one of the most expensive constructions of its age a “vivid symbol of the imaginative forces driving American capitalism.” The manner in which she breaks, contorts, and twists Mies’ black steel frame and displays it as a reclining figure, subverting the steel grid, is a powerful if slightly bombastic reminder of the promises and reality of modernism when it confronted the power of American capitalism.

However, this is not meant to be a review of an architecturally inspired installation, but to remind us about the rich resources that surround us in New York City. It’s a resource of potentially unparalleled architectural bounty if only we make the effort to visit these various museums, galleries, and, occasionally, outdoor public spaces. Now if we could only get back a dedicated architecture bookstore the design culture of the city would be nearly complete.

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Make Chicago's Biennial Count
Decay of the Dome exhibit at the 2010 Venice Biennale.
Lu Wenyu

News broke in late June that Chicago plans to kick off a new tradition in 2015. Every two years the city will host North America’s biggest exposition of international and contemporary architecture—its own biennial, taking after the famous gathering in Venice that has inspired global design pilgrimages since 1980.

The goal of the event is to renew Chicago’s vaunted place among the international design community, and to nab tourism dollars for economic development. It’s a bombastic proposal, perfectly in line with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promotion of cultural tourism.

And why not? Chicago’s history as a center for modern architecture is evident to anyone who has strolled The Loop or surveyed contemporary design history. Two of the stars on our municipal flag are for expos (the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933–34), so maybe it’s in our DNA to seek out the world stage through such shows.

Ironically there’s a certain parochialism that comes with Chicago’s desire to host an international design expo. Implicit in the announcement is a bit of boosterism—as much as the aim of the event is purportedly to survey contemporary design from around the world, it wouldn’t merit mayoral fanfare without the requisite language about Chicago’s integral place in shaping the discipline throughout the 20th century, and its “world-class” scene today. It’s the Second City complex: we want the cultural influence enjoyed by New York and L.A.

So let’s celebrate our industrial heritage—trains, stockyards, manufacturing—Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Adler & Sullivan, Holabird & Root, and so on. Sure, show off the reborn riverfront to signal the return of urban waterways thanks to environmental protections and investments in public space. Hold up resurgent downtown real estate, bike lanes, and high-tech jobs bringing young people back to cities that used to make up the Rust Belt.

But if this exhibition is more than a tourist brochure, it should delve into our challenges as well as our victories. Let’s see exhibitions on poverty, crime, and segregation. Show off gun violence, class divides, and the concentration of wealth and political power among a proportionally smaller group of individuals than at any time since the Gilded Age. Hold up our nation’s struggles with its successes, and then we’ll have a show that people will travel far and wide to see.

After all, it has been said that Chicago is the most American of American cities. These are American problems, and they deserve solutions. It’s the first American biennial; what’s more American than public debate? This is a perfect time and place to put big questions to our designers, artists, and architects, pressing them to start a conversation that will go beyond the expo pamphlets and cocktail parties.

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On Accountability & the Public Realm
Zumthor's planned expansion to LACMA.
Courtesy LACMA

Architecture, unlike art, is an endeavor that impacts entire communities and requires the approval and consent of the many. But from looking at LACMA’s anointing of Peter Zumthor and Frank Gehry to design its museum replacement and (potentially) an adjacent tower, it would appear that this reality is still being ignored.

First let me be clear that I respect these decisions. Zumthor and Gehry don’t need to prove their credentials to anyone, and the likelihood of two Pritzker Prize winners designing on the same block is an exciting one.

But…

LACMA director Michael Govan is in charge of an institution that receives about forty percent of its funding from the County of Los Angeles, and thus needs to answer to those funders. Yet he chose Zumthor and floated Gehry without even a semblance of public input or awareness. No competition. No public discussion or review. Yes he made the public aware of the Zumthor scheme with an exhibition, a public session with the architect, and in articles in the press, but only after the architect was chosen and the plans were well along. He also announced Gehry’s potential selection without a hint that others could be up for the job or that there might be another public process if that plan—which the museum would undertake with LA’s transit agency, Metro—goes forward.

Outside of the issue of its public funding, a work of such tremendous impact on the community should be both more transparent and inviting with regard to its selection process. In his most recent iteration Zumthor wants his oozing design to curve its way over Wilshire Boulevard, blocking views down this fabled corridor and questionably removing the building from the pedestrian flow around it. Like it or not it’s a bold move. But it needs to be vetted with the public that will be impacted at the stage when the initial design is still in formation. At the point of unveiling it’s too late.

I’m not arguing that the public needs to make the decision over the architect or the design. In my opinion those decisions should be made by experts in the field and by the museum administrators who will use it. (When the public starts to get too involved in the minutia of a project they can stifle creative plans—see the Whitney’s original expansion proposal or the many scuttled plans in the heart of San Francisco.) But they need to share that responsibility with the public, who should oversee what’s happening. To ignore this is not just irresponsible but arrogant.

Richard Koshalek, who led the competition for Disney Hall, the Tate Modern, and for other major buildings around the world, speaks highly of the lessons learned from including public input in various selection processes.

“We learned a hell of a lot from the public about what they wanted,” said Koshalek, of one of these many undertakings. He added: “When it’s a public funded institution the public should have the right to be aware of the process and aware of what you’re trying to accomplish.”

No other recent building of this cultural import in Los Angeles was developed without public input or at the very least a competition. In addition to Disney’s very public competition, Caltrans hosted a public competition for its downtown building by Morphosis as did MOCA for its structure by Arata Isozaki. Even Eli Broad held a competition for his new museum in Downtown LA, although he never shared the schemes from the runners up, which was way off the mark.

Beyond being the right thing to do, an inclusive strategy can also be the smartest path to getting a project approved. Without it a museum risks alienating the public before it gets a chance to make proper adjustments. This is a strategy that has backfired in other areas. While President Obama’s health care initiative has provided millions with very necessary care, just think how much easier it would have been to pass if he had made his case more clearly to the public early on? Closer to home, SCI-Arc is still facing some bluster for naming Hernan Diaz Alonso as its new director without involving the student body in a more direct way before the decision was made by the school’s selection committee. While I do support Diaz Alonso as a gifted teacher, and acknowledge that most schools don’t follow these rules, I think for a school like SCI-Arc, founded as an “institution without walls,” the selection process should have been more open from the beginning. Finally, LA’s planning department should make its web site much more robust, allowing the public to access in a much more detailed way all the projects and plans that are being put forward.

In a day and age when the public can be included so easily via technology, and when people express their likes and dislikes on social media every second, it is important to incorporate this kind of openness in the built world; particularly in the public realm. We need to embrace that reality.

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The Seaport Adrift
Courtesy SHoP

At press time, the founder of the New Amsterdam Market, Rovert LaValva, announced the end of the pop-up artisanal food market, which he had long hoped to make a permanent food hall in the historic South Street Seaport. LaValva accused Lower Manhattan Council Woman Margaret Chin of betraying the community and bemoaned her closeness to the Seaport’s primary owner, The Howard Hughes Corporation. AN immediately reached out to Chin for comment, and she called LaValva’s statement “false” and vowed to continue to work with the board of the New Amsterdam Market to try and give it a permanent home at the Seaport.

While the LaValva/Chin spat makes for good copy, it also speaks to a larger sense of rudderlessness at the Seaport. Still only semi-recovered from Hurricane Sandy, the Seaport is very much in limbo. Pier 17, the old mall that anchored the Seaport festival marketplace in a suburban commercial milieu, which caused many New Yorkers to scorn the area, has been demolished. An updated, glassy, grass-and-performance-venue-topped shopping mall designed by SHoP will replace it. The other primary 1970s-era shopping building is closed, cleared of tenants, its fate unclear. The so-called Tin Building, which would have been relocated for a giant also-SHoP designed tower (that plan has since been scuttled), remains in place. The old Fulton Fish market building is empty.

The South Street Seaport museum, which owns the collection of ships—many of which are badly decaying and in need of restoration or relocation—as well as the string of early 19th century buildings known as Schermerhorn Row, is operating with a skeletal staff. Following an unsuccessful partnership with the Museum of the City of New York, its fate is highly uncertain.

Hughes is staging events and has created the now familiar shipping container food stand/shopping area to keep the area active. But it lacks the vitality of most New York City neighborhoods.

All this begs the question, what do we want the Seaport to be? Hughes obviously wants a return on its investment, and it wants to build out at the maximum allowable square feet. But the line between the public and private has always been blurry at the Seaport, and if anything, the public needs a larger stake in its future.

The seemingly outlandish Seaport City plan, which would create massive blocks long East River version of Battery Park City under the guise of flood protection, is advancing. The ever-powerful Economic Development Corporation is privately and publicly pushing for it. The mayor with his single focus on affordable housing could be seduced by this clumsy idea. He should resist it.

Not only would Seaport City destroy or neuter the just built East River Park, it would also further sever the Seaport itself from its namesake connection to the water. A more enlightened approach would be to integrate movable floodwalls under the FDR, as advocated by BIG and Starr Whitehouse’s Rebuild by Design plan.

More importantly, how can the Seaport itself be reconceived to connect better to its surroundings, to include non-mall elements like housing, to become a distinctive but more authentic neighborhood? Developers, preservationists, and community groups want vastly different things for the area. The mayor and the Department of City Planning should take a stronger hand here and insist that this important but fragile and under realized area meet its full potential. A master planning process, ideally one led by a world-class design team without financial interests in the area (i.e. not SHoP), which would represent all these interests, is sorely needed. A fancy food hall might be a great complement to the area, but let a good planning process bear that out.

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New Cities and Old
New Cities Foundation-Rachel Dare

This June, at the New Cities Summit in the Dallas Arts District, on the fourth floor of the Winspear Opera House, I had the opportunity to sit down with Maxwell Anderson, who has been director of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) since 2012. During our discussion, Mr. Anderson got out his smart phone and showed me an old black and white photograph of pre-war downtown Dallas: a teeming street scene bustling with hat-wearing pedestrians, trolley cars, and automobiles. The only thing that distinguished it as a city in Texas, as opposed to New York or Chicago in that period, was a sign shaped like a cowboy boot hanging over the sidewalk. “Dallas today is so spread out,” he said. “But not many people are familiar with old downtown Dallas. It was a vibrant urban place. We’re only now seeking to create that again."

That notion of re-creating a city, specifically in the 21st century, was the theme of this year’s New Cities Summit (AN was a media partner of the event), an annual convention of global business leaders, representatives of government, academics, cultural directors, architects, planners, and others concerned with the future of urban areas. It was also central to why the New Cities Foundation, a European non-profit whose founding members include technology and communications giants Cisco and Ericsson, chose Big D as a location (the previous two summits were held in Paris, France, and São Paulo, Brazil). “Dallas is a place that is eager to tell its story again,” is the way that Mathieu Lefevre, executive director of the foundation, put it to me.

Like most Sunbelt cities, Dallas sprawls out over a vast spread of land and incorporates many smaller towns and suburbs within its metropolitan area, all linked, of course, by freeways. How to go from that condition to some resemblance of Anderson’s nostalgic image of old urban Dallas is anyone’s guess, but the first thing to find out, it appears to me, is whether or not the people who live there actually want such a transformation. It’s a crazy notion, I know, and one not much entertained in urbanism circles, but there really are millions of Americans who live in suburbia and drive around in cars and actually find things to like about it—at least the current ridership figures of Dallas Area Rapid Transit make it seem so. Anderson, a native Manhattanite and “cave-dweller since childhood,” may find density completely natural, but there are still many who would not wish to give up their backyards in favor of walking to the grocery store.

But, nonetheless, Dallas is trying to create more “vibrancy” downtown; trying to attract more people and keep them there for longer. One way it is doing that is through its arts district, a truly phenomenal collection of cultural institutions housed in equally impressive buildings, which is just now completing the commercial infrastructure it believes will activate the streetscape both day and night. (Anderson, by the way, returned DMA to free general admission, an admirable policy for any great museum and yet another carrot to draw people to the district.)

Will it work? Well, not everyone thinks the strategy is foolproof, or even desirable. In the summit workshop Cultural Districts as Engines of Urban Transformation, Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America, made his position unequivocally clear: “Stop planning cultural districts!” he exclaimed. In a nutshell, his argument is that planning “cultural ghettos,” as he calls them, only reinforces the notion that culture only happens in those places, while, in truth, culture happen all over, wherever there are people who choose to interpret their story through art: a band that records in a garage studio on a sleepy suburban street, for example, or a community theater that stages its productions in a high school auditorium.

The Chinese artist, Huang Rui, who gave the summit’s Art and the City keynote speech, furthered this point when he said, and I am paraphrasing, that you can’t build culture, it is the spontaneous expression of people in their time and place. (He knows what he’s talking about. China has been opening around 100 museums per year for the past several years, and opened 400 in 2011 alone. This museum boom, however, has not resulted in a culture boom.) Dallas’ jaw-dropping arts district, built as it is upon a blank slate, may eventually attract more people downtown, and keep them there for longer, but it is hard to imagine it ever creating the sort of unbidden exuberance expressed in Anderson’s old photo.

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On Not Choosing Sides
SoLA Village is being designed by Gensler and P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S.
Courtesy Gensler / P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S

For a profession that prides itself on its open mindedness and collaboration, we’re obsessed with dividing ourselves into factions. One particularly egregious example:  corporate versus boutique practices. More than ever it seems you’re either perceived as creative or that you’re working as a corporate drone.

By some accounts this dichotomy has some truth to it, as larger firms, burdened with high profit expectations and bottom line-oriented clients, take on more bread and butter work and burden their younger employees with monotonous details. And as young firms continue to get shut out of major work, they instead busy themselves with residences, competitions, and art installations.

But despite the practical realities, fostering such divisions is a counterproductive way of thinking, and of practicing. It’s the kind of mentality that will keep the profession marginalized from the mainstream.

If the profession is to thrive, and if our urban landscape is to improve, more firms need to find ways to take advantage of the creativity of a small firm and the resources of a big one. They don’t need to choose a side. Happily there is some movement in the right direction, as larger firms edge toward creativity and innovation and small ones learn to adapt the models of the big boys.

Larger companies are following in the footsteps of a precious few firms like SOM and Foster + Partners that have long embraced innovation (although even they still sometimes produce B-quality work) at a large scale, corporate level.

Last month we interviewed Peter Zellner, an adventurous architect known for small residences and art galleries, who recently took a job as studio design lead for the LA office of AECOM, the largest A/E firm in the world, and a place not known as avant-garde. The move, coupled with similar hires elsewhere, shows the company’s desire to step out of its comfort zone and focus harder on design and innovation.

Earlier this month we learned that LA firm P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S has joined forces with Gensler (a corporate firm taking major steps to create design excellence in its rapidly growing office) to design SoLA Village, a $1 billion residential, hotel, and retail complex just south of the 10 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.

Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign has for the past decade or so harnessed the power of Cannon but stuck with only ambitious work. It makes for some tension within the firm, but it has also created some stunning large-scale projects.

In New York, Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects has talked about how merging design excellence and corporate scale is essentially his firm’s business model. And it’s paid off, resulting in major commissions of rare quality. Other firms like Steven Holl Architects, Snøhetta, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro are growing and teaming up with larger firms to make their visions reality.

And across Los Angeles small to medium sized firms like John Friedman Alice Kimm, Brooks+Scarpa, and Steven Ehrlich Architects are winning larger commissions by bolstering their staffs and their technologies, embracing delivery methods like design/build, partnering with larger architecture and construction firms, and making important connections in the corporate and government sectors.

I plan to continue exploring this sea change in the coming months, observing the merger of design culture, innovation, and corporate environments. There are so many models in other businesses that we can learn from. You may have heard of a little startup known for merging design with practicality called Apple?

In order to stay relevant, and to harness its potential, the profession needs to stop moving apart and start coming together. Perhaps there will be a time when we don’t need to distinguish between a so-called design firm and a so-called corporate one.

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Best Game in Town
HOK's proposal for an Obama presidential library in Chicago.
Courtesy HOK

If the political junkie’s current preoccupation is prematurely sizing up the 2016 presidential race, the architectural game of the moment is speculating where Barack Obama’s library will land once the 44th president has left office. Of course, here in Chicago we’re all but certain Obama will locate the physical manifestation of his legacy in his adopted hometown, where he taught law, launched his career in public service, and delivered victory speeches in 2008 and 2012. That’s still up in the air—New York, where he attended Columbia University, and Hawaii, his birth state, are both vying for the attention of a foundation tasked with establishing the library.

Why all the clamor? Conventional wisdom holds that a presidential library is an economic shot in the arm, a tourist boost and a longstanding attraction that wins its host city a burst of international attention. They’re usually privately funded and then handed over to the National Archive, so they’re bound to be a net positive to the area.

But how certain is this economic boost? A few years ago Illinois Institute of Technology Professor Marshall Brown corralled undergraduate and graduate architecture students in two different studios to examine the impact of presidential libraries past. Their research on 13 existing libraries did not resoundingly confirm the “build it and they will come” suspicions.

“It was interesting to find out, as far as we could find, no one had publicly compiled all that information before,” Brown told me in early June. It’s hard to draw blanket conclusions about economic impact—the size and location of the libraries vary greatly—but they’re generally not the boon they’re made out to be, at least in terms of raw numbers. Brown thinks the success of some libraries has to do with what they bring to the urban character of the neighborhood they end up calling home.

“They don’t attract that much energy on their own,” he said, “but if they’re sited correctly they can kind of add to what’s going on and act as a catalyst.”

Take Bill Clinton’s library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Situated between downtown and the airport, it fell on the decidedly urban end of the spectrum versus, say, Ronald Reagan’s library in suburban Simi Valley, California. Even JFK’s Boston site was in relatively remote Columbia Point. The Chicago locations proposed so far have mostly been around Hyde Park, so it seems, even at this early date, Obama’s should vie to be the first truly urban presidential library.

So let’s remember a few things as the conversation picks up. First, let’s look beyond the almighty dollar when we imagine what the footprint of this development might look like. Will it make room for public space, community programs, transit improvements? Will it announce its architectural significance in context, or land like a spaceship? (Or worse yet, compromise for conference center blandness.) Obama started his career in public service here as a community organizer. If Chicagoans want this library, let’s see communities from the North Shore to Northwest Indiana organize around great design. Tourist dollars chase great places, not the other way around.

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Motoring Toward Destruction?
Michigan Central Station.
Juan N Only / Flickr

When news of Detroit’s new blight removal plan broke, I couldn’t stop thinking about Philadelphia’s Divine Lorraine Hotel. A massive Victorian oddity with a checkered history, this hotel had been abandoned for more than 20 years, heavily tagged with graffiti, and stripped down to its masonry shell. In that time it had become emblematic of Philadelphia’s gritty, down on its heels side. It was recently announced that it is being redeveloped into apartments, a hotel, and retail space.

Philadelphia and Detroit are vastly different cities in physical form, demographics, and financial and institutional resources. And yet twenty years ago many would have suggested Philadelphia was headed in the direction of the Motor City—financial collapse and large-scale depopulation.

Philadelphia has slowly fought its way back from the brink. There have been high profile projects and a couple of new corporate headquarters, but Philadelphia’s revival has largely been incremental, building by building, street by street. Local government, universities, developers and businesses, numerous civic and community groups have all fought for the city and their work is paying off. Urban problems persist, including a struggling school system and a tremendous amount of blight in some neighborhoods. Much work remains to be done.

The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force’s plan is breathtaking in its speed, scale, and cost. Using the most detailed inventory of the city’s building stock ever created, they recommend demolishing 40,000 buildings at a cost of more than $850 million. According to the study more than 30 percent of the city’s buildings, or almost 80,000 structures, are severely dilapidated or decaying. In their view, blight spreads like cancer. In order to save this city, you must level large swaths of it. The goal is to wipe the urban slate clean within five years.

The plan goes further to recommend possible clearance and remediation of 559 industrial sites at a possible cost of $1 billion. The Task Force acknowledges that this process will take longer, due largely to environmental conditions at these massive former factories.

In its panic to save itself, Detroit runs the risk of demolishing its identity and the foundation of its revival (whatever that may be). It is almost hackneyed to repeat the Jacobsian idea that new ideas need old buildings, but evidence suggests time and again that it’s true. (One of Philadelphia’s growing companies, Urban Outfitters, pedals a teen-friendly mash-up of street style/industrial chic/suburban slouch, all designed in their lavishly redone headquarters in the city’s navy yard). Detroit’s sprawling Packard Plant was recently purchased and plans for development on the site, likely to include both reuse and demolition of its buildings, are being explored. In New York, we’re so short on industrial space that many businesses cannot expand, and former warehouses turned lofts command rents beyond the reach of most start-ups.

The Task Force’s argument for swiftness is easily countered by the question of what to do with even more vacant land, something of which Detroit has no shortage. Significant amounts of demolition, particularly in heavily residential areas filled with unsafe, structurally unsound single-family homes, will likely be necessary. But the Task Force’s inventory could also be used as an open call for ideas and development proposals, not just a map of destruction. Thousands of these properties are city owned. Let’s hope the city has the nerve to seek answers other than the wrecking ball.

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Reading Between the Guidelines
Dave Reichert / Flickr

Recently, LA’s planning department added new design guidelines to its small lot subdivision ordinance, a measure that allows owners to divide larger lots—once reserved for apartments and larger condos—into smaller parcels. The guidelines outline well-intentioned goals to improve the quality of this important type of housing stock, revolving around issues like site organization, building design and materials, urban form, setbacks, parking, landscaping, and access.

Intelligent requirements include adding permeable paving; designing for pedestrian access; locating parking to the rear of dwellings; and demarcating clear entryways. But the problems lie, as is often the case, with the more subjective requirements, like “enhancing the public realm,” creating “high-quality” environments, and making housing “compatible with the existing neighborhood context.”

These are not bad ideas. Of course they’re good goals. The question is who determines the standards of quality, compatibility, and other very subjective guidelines? As of now the rules leave decisions in the hands of a very small group of people in the planning department’s urban design studio. They’re an architecture-fluent group that I’m a supporter of. But while compromise is often the death of architecture, we’ve also learned that absolute power corrupts, particularly in planning.

For example, a design-savvy developer in LA, who had hired a top tier architect to design a small lot development, told me he was recently informed by an employee in the department that his design was subpar. They told him that he preferred architecture that looked like The Grove, the nostalgic retail development in the city’s Miracle Mile area. Hence the issue: why should urban design and architecture decisions be made on the basis of taste?

Design guidelines can be effective tools, but micro-managing them can lead to a limitation of creativity and a bending of design to the tastes of a few. That can become a bigger problem for architecture when those few are planners, or other officials, or neighbors, not architects. The same goes for Los Angeles’s citywide design guidelines, which I support as an important tool for improving the urban realm and preventing mediocrity. But they too must not become a method for bending style in one direction or the other. The most powerful guidelines outline specific baselines for good design, and don’t wade into subjective aesthetic issues. And if they do wade into subjectivity, decisions should be made by several people, not by any one or two players.

One of the things that makes Los Angeles special is its overflowing wealth of design talent and creativity. Sure we need to establish a baseline to make sure they’re complying with the basic standards of livability and urbanity. To not do that could mean a repeat of the many urbanistic mistakes that have marred the landscape here. But to dictate how architects should design, and to leave decisions about those designs in the hands of too few, is a recipe for limitation and mediocrity.