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This year’s meeting of the Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) was hosted at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. It was the 36th meeting of ACADIA, and was regarded to be an incredibly successful showing. The theme of the conference, Posthuman Frontiers: Data, Designers, and Cognitive Machines, was paired with the Posthuman Frontiers exhibition, featuring jury-selected projects submitted to the conference, as well as the advanced work of Taubman College faculty. The events of the conference were held at multiple venues around Ann Arbor, and were preceded by several workshops that made use of Taubman College’s digital fabrication and instruction facilities.
For those of us on the outside looking in (in our lesser moments, perhaps), the ACADIA community might easily be misconstrued as a group of architects obsessed with robots, or possessing an interest in complicated shapes made in Grasshopper for their own sake. However, the three days this author spent among their ranks at this year’s conference were some of the most inspiring in recent memory. Yes, there were moments of geometric fetishism, and yes, there were a considerable number of time-lapse videos of robot arms in progress. But when taken in aggregate, these projects, papers, and talks reframed and made vibrant the essential ingredients of what we work on as architects: the arrangement of solid and void, the cultural effects of form, and the possibilities of what we might craft in the built environment.
It must be said that the range of work presented was dramatic. Even within the more immediately applicable papers and projects were sober arguments for parametric design in space planning, a smart device for lowering cooling costs in office spaces, newly designed plugins to optimize the unfolding of 3-D meshes, and progress-in-training robots to lay tile in order to relieve the strain on human bodies.Caress of the Gaze from Pier 9 on Vimeo.
Reaching into more radical territory, we saw prototyped near-body architectures operating on the politics of the posthuman in Behnaz Farahi’s “Caress of the Gaze,” an actuated garment which tracks—and responds to—the eye movement of those regarding the wearer. We saw installations that build intimacy and a sense of cooperative play between humans and digital entities. There was work which adopted uncommon material alliances of “programmable matter,” such as in Jane Scott’s intertwining of hydrophobic fibers that writhe and retract when exposed to water vapor (one of several fabric-oriented works), and too many others of note to mention them all.
But some of the most memorable moments from this conference were the keynote addresses, as they punctuated the proceedings with disparate tones and positions that illuminated the diversity of this community. Theodore Spyropoulos led the charge on Thursday with a talk entitled All Is Behavior (a play on Hans Hollein’s claim that “All are architects. Everything is architecture.”) It quickly became clear that Spyropoulos sees the future of cities, and indeed, that of humanity, in a technologically positivist light. He envisions self-organizing and aggregating structures which allow for adaptivity in the face of changing climatic or social conditions, and seeks to bring us into more sympathetic forms of interaction with robotic and digital entities.
The evening of the same day found the participants exposed to other visionary work, in a dreamy—and at times titillating—conversation between Philip Beesley and Iris Van Herpen, whose ongoing collaborations are advancing both Van Herpen’s work at the forefront of couture, and Beesley’s at, perhaps, the architectural equivalent. Lucidly expressive, Beesley’s tone was one of wonderment—of proposed, barely imaginable relationships between humans and matter. In fact, Beesley’s role is most easily understood, and his work is most easily appreciated, when it is placed in the context of couture, the goal of which is to push the bounds of what is possible in clothing.
Mario Carpo’s discussion of the cultural implications of searchability was a thoughtful meditation and provocation that ultimately concluded the conference Saturday evening, but the real climax of ACADIA 2016 was a keynote lecture Friday evening by Elizabeth Diller, as she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Despite a playful hesitance to engage with the foreboding finality of “Lifetime Achievement,” Diller generously outlined some of the more seminal works of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), one of the most influential practices in the world over the past 25 years. Early in the talk, Diller emphasized her interest in the fields adjacent to architecture, a propensity for smaller scale works, and a persistent fascination with “the encounter.” By the end, however, she was in a mode of pure architectural shoptalk, sharing in-progress photos of the recently manufactured steel struts and enormous wheels that will comprise The Shed, currently in construction in New York’s Hudson Yards development. Diller concluded her remarks with some reflections upon the way culture has shifted since some of DS+R’s early work. In the present day, she claims:
“...the speed of obsolescence makes technology a liability. Dumber is better than smarter and the best thing to do for culture in the future is to secure real estate. It’s as basic as that.
Then: Systems theory, game theory, cybernetic control systems were tools to democratize culture.
Now: Digital technologies allow culture to be open source, dispersed, and on-demand. However, with democracy comes the ubiquitous condition of being monitored, so it’s a different time.…
Then: Kit of parts and kinetic systems produce flexibility.
Now: Flexibility is a paradox. The more flexibility is built in, the more predetermined, leaving nothing but empty space (this is related to ‘dumb is a virtue’).
Then: Disciplinary borders had to be broken.
Now: Despite academia’s parsing and classification, the richly indeterminate contours of interdisciplinarity, intradisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, cross-disciplinarity—we actually have to push to make these things happen, because somehow, the real world divides everything up again. Because that’s where money comes from—different places. And it’s going to take a long time to change the system.
Then: Government support for culture was assumed.
Now: To avoid the vicissitudes of the economy, the cultural institutions must produce their own financial security.
Then: The architect was a generalist that gathers research from subcommittees.
Now: Professionalization turns the architect into a director/producer that relies on a rolling cadre of subconsultants who bring an ever-widening depth of expertise to ever-more adventurous problems. So, then and now, the architect gets to push the agency of the profession to invent a cultural and civic project on both scores.”
These sage thoughts carried the conference into its final day, which held perhaps the most poignant moment of the proceedings, as Chuck Eastman, one of the original founders of ACADIA in 1981, received the Society Award of Excellence. Hearing Eastman describe the early days of computational design, the work that went into tasks as simple as Boolean operations, put the tools we now take for granted in perspective. It is amazing how far computational design has advanced in just a few decades, and this community shows no sign of slowing. No doubt, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab will rise to the occasion and show us the next chapter a year from now, as they are slated to host ACADIA 2017.
Shaping the Discourse
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A Long Line Coming
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When Thomas Heatherwick—the nimble London-based designer known for work that defies easy categorization—unveiled his design for a new public landmark called Vessel at Hudson Yards to a crowd of reporters and New York City power players in September, questions abounded. What is it? What will it do to the neighborhood? And what does it say that Stephen Ross, the president and CEO of Related Companies, the primary developer of Hudson Yards, is financing the entire $250 million piece by himself?
It’s natural that Ross chose Heatherwick Studio to design his centerpiece, because the office’s creations stun. For the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, it extruded 60,000 clear acrylic tubes from a center space to create a fuzzy, crystalline object whose apparent fragility is as mesmerizing as it is clever. As the studio moves toward ever-larger and ever-more-public commissions, the people who will live with its work will need to seriously consider what it will mean for their neighborhoods and cities.
Interactive public art is plentiful, but there are no pieces with the built-in interactivity of Vessel. In Chicago, tourists snap selfies with Anish Kapoor’s parabolic Cloud Gate (the Bean), while at New York’s Astor Place visitors can now once again give Bernard Rosenthal’s Alamo (the Cube) a spin. Vessel is supposed to be to Hudson Yards what the Christmas tree is to Rockefeller Center, but on display all year round. Related said it’s a “new kind of public landmark,” while The New York Times called it “a stairway to nowhere.” Heatherwick referred to it as a “device.” Critics have been unable, or unwilling, to name it. There’s power in naming, so let’s call Vessel what it is—it is architecture. It fulfills the most basic criteria for the category: The piece serves a purpose and acts as an apparatus for the reorientation of the body in relationship to both the ground and the city.
Vessel’s 2,400 steps will anchor the largest private development in the U.S., lifting visitors above Hudson Yards’ 14 acres of parks and plazas. The elevations will give New Yorkers and tourists—siphoned off a to-be-constructed High Line spur—a place to view each other and all the stalagmitic towers of Hudson Yards. When complete, the 16-story structure will be the tallest freestanding observation platform in the city, at least until Staten Island’s New York Wheel starts rolling.
Formally, the piece is inspired by Indian stepwells, but according to Heatherwick, it’s a monument “to us.” Like Pier 55, the architect’s park on mushroom stilts on the lower west side, Vessel has instant visual currency—critics have compared it to a snakeskin teacup, honeycombs, bedbugs, and a döner kebab. For its creator, it’s a bespoke response to the globalized taste that plants boring glass curtain-wall towers in Shanghai and London and plops blue chip art on corporate plazas in Los Angeles and Chicago. Vessel is the antidote that nurtures a spirit of togetherness: “Buildings are getting bigger and bigger—that mega-scale, it’s something new,” Heatherwick told AN at the unveiling. “But 2,000 years ago, humans were mostly the same size we are now. The human scale stays true.” Like its creator, who the press has affectionately compared to Willy Wonka, Vessel is so earnest: Its intricate symmetry and aesthetics divorce the grand stair from a signal of power and prestige, while its ostensibly public nature decouples the ordinary stair from its floor-to-floor workaday obligation.
Underneath its sincerity, though, Vessel harbors serious contradictions. Heatherwick said it “has no commercial objective,” which is hard to buy when the structure is the ultimate native advertising: It will sit smack in the middle of a five-acre park in the eastern yard designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz, a jewel in a glittery crown. It puts Ross’s taste and design acumen on display for public admiration. As a gathering space, it’s intended to integrate the raw development—which sits on a crust of artificial land over its namesake rail yards—into the rich fabric of New York City.
A proper design narrative, rolled out by the mayor and a multiracial dance troupe from Alvin Ailey, paves the way for public acceptance and mental integration before the idea is built out. Who could argue with Heatherwick’s kumbaya, a campaign for one New York?
In a city where even the ultra-rich hustle in and out of the subway, Vessel elevates the time-honored art of the schlep to civic priority—sort of. Heatherwick said it has no prescribed meaning, and that it is up to the public to decide—a vote for radical spatial practice if there ever was one. There’s tremendous satisfaction, too, in hauling up a long set of set of stairs, our urban mountainsides. The whole-body high from ascending a tough trail, or emerging from the Lexington Avenue–63rd Street subway station, humbles screaming quads before God, gravity, and smart engineers. Heatherwick’s gift to the city of New York, defines a citizen-subject as one who can walk—a lot. In a promotional video for Hudson Yards, Heatherwick says “it’s extremely interactive, but properly,” slapping his torso and thighs, “using your physicality.”
On the surface, there’s a positive correlation between the healthy metropolis—a public ideal that New York embraces—and the fit citizen—a personal ideal. But we’re still far from health equity.
Sure, the piece will be ADA-compliant; curving elevators will sweep the wheelchair users, arthritic citizens, moms and dads with strollers, tired people, the very unathletic, and the time-crunched up to the top. For those of us fit enough to make it up even some of those steps, the terraces will form a bronzed steel beehive with neat new perspectives on the city. Flânerie never goes out of style, and in 2018 when Vessel opens, people will be watching other people on screens, too, documenting the fun on Instagram in a flurry of #Heatherwicks. Millennial employees of VaynerMedia, a Hudson Yards tenant, might use the thing as a StairMaster, and I predict there will be a Buzzfeed article on how to keep in shape with the new outdoor fitness structure. For his part, Heatherwick hopes that Vessel can be used for live performance, a dynamic and ostensibly more public forum than a Broadway theater or DS+R’s slick corporate Shed adjacent to Heatherwick’s piece. (So corporate, in fact, that “Culture” was removed from the name.)
However, even though initial renderings usually oversell the final product, Heatherwick’s visions are particularly egregious. Although the structure is being assembled right now, the renderings raise troubling questions about the gap between the not-architecture-but-still-architecture’s intended and probable uses.
As his Shanghai Expo pavilion, his redesigned Routemaster bus for London, and his 2012 Olympic cauldron demonstrate, Heatherwick is a master detailer and global designer adept at translating compelling human themes to local contexts. The Vessel model, which Ross reportedly kept under lock and key in his office, has been ready for months. Why then, at the public unveiling in September, were so many details missing?
Consider the crowds. Heatherwick’s piece is supposed to take the success of the High Line and spin it vertically. Though pioneering, the High Line has received justified criticism for its crowding and lack of surprises, but at least it gets you, slowly, from place to place (and, as art critic Jerry Saltz observed, it keeps tourists out of Chelsea’s galleries). If on nice days the High Line backs up, how will crowds be managed on a structure that only has egresses at its base? Heatherwick insists Vessel will be free to visit, but how besides timed and ticketed entry will the structure accommodate everyone?
If it’s as popular as its creators believe, Vessel will attract not only people but also those other New Yorkers: The pigeons. The structure seems ready-made for roosting, and I can’t imagine how hard it will be to properly enjoy Vessel while dodging dove turds. And in cold weather, I hope Ross will be more sedulous about de-icing the platforms than the neighbors on every block who make pedestrian booby traps out of sidewalks in front of their buildings.
As one climbs up Vessel, the railings stay just above waist height all the way up to the structure’s top, but when you build high, folks will jump. After a student leapt into the soaring central atrium of NYU’s Bobst Library seven years ago, the school installed metal fencing—on top of the Plexiglas barriers it had put in years earlier in response to other suicides. Philip Johnson and Richard Foster didn’t see the death in the design that the public’s morbid ideation uncovered, but Ross and Heatherwick seem not to have learned from Bobst, or from the city’s bridges and iconic tall buildings. If barriers are installed, how will they affect the views, Vessel’s main selling point?
Critics have compared Vessel to the Eiffel Tower, but Paris’s landmark is very much of its era, and meaning-making in our time has moved beyond tit-for-tat semiotics. New York has the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, and any number of other symbols with which to broadcast its image. Plus, we’re on Instagram: Times Square is the world’s most-tagged location, more featured than the number-two tagged Eiffel Tower. There is already an essential New York space on a billion screens.
At this hour, there’s truly no point in reviving the perennial debate about the vacuousness of privately-owned-and-operated public space. The structure, surrounded on all sides by condos that start at $2 million, a Neiman Marcus, and a Thomas Keller restaurant, is a footnote in a city where politicians and developers plan expensive malls but call them transit hubs; where amateur urban planners like multimillionaire couple Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, patrons of Heatherwick’s Pier 55, shape public priorities; and impressive but empty fortresses for billionaires jostle each other for space in the sky. In its size and ambition, Vessel feels significant in some way, but in contrast to the High Line’s renegotiation of the urban park, Vessel feels like a Gilded Age geegaw foisted on the city by a “benevolent” rich guy.
Today the developer of Hudson Yards has revealed designs for the Far West Side's newest tower.
Related Companies and Oxford Properties Group unveiled the icy cloudbuster for 50 Hudson Yards, designed by global firm Foster + Partners. The 985-foot, 58-story structure covers an entire city block.
“50 Hudson Yards is envisaged as a vertical campus in the heart of Manhattan that is eminently readable at city scale with three distinct blocks stacked one above the other,” said Nigel Dancey, Foster + Partners' head of studio, in a statement. “Crafted from a simple palette of white stone and glass, the building’s primary structure has been pushed to the edges to create large-span flexible floorplates. It aspires to define the workplace of the future, bringing to the fore the practice’s values of innovation and creativity by producing a positive work environment that seeks to fulfill the needs and expectations of a demanding workforce.”
When complete, the 2.9 million-square-foot building at 33rd Street and 10th Avenue will be the city's fourth largest office tower. When the building opens in 2022, principal tenants like the financial company BlackRock will enjoy outdoor terraces and private "sky lobbies," as well as access to 30 Hudson Yards' outdoor observation platform.
The New York Times reports that New York State is giving Blackrock, a company with more than $5 trillion in assets, a $25 million tax break to stay in the state and move into the shiny new tower.
Construction is expected to begin next year on the white stone– and glass-clad building. In the renderings, glass windows are framed by stone while dark-outlined floors peek out from behind the glazed facade. Column-free floorplates that span a minimum of 50,000 square feet per floor are able to accommodate 500-plus people, and workers on some floors will enjoy expansive outdoor spaces, the result of periodic setbacks.
“Covering a full city block, the building is highly permeable at ground level, allowing it to engage fully with its urban location," Norman Foster, founding principal of Foster + Partners, said in a statement. "Designed for a sustainable future, the building makes an important contribution to the regeneration of the far west side of Manhattan.”
The Whole (13) Yards
Will the South Bronx be getting a Hudson Yards of its own?
New York State has announced it will cap a South Bronx railyard and build a large development on top to energize the borough's economy.
In late November, Empire State Development put out a Request For Expressions of Interest (RFEI) aimed at developers who could build, a lá Hudson Yards, a platform over a 12.8-acre strip of railyard without compromising the functionality of a critical regional juncture for commercial trains and trucks. The RFEI asks interested parties to present options for the lease or purchase of the land to construct a residential or mixed-use project with a public space component.
“It’s exciting, and very rare to offer the opportunity to develop more than a dozen acres of prime waterfront land in New York City,” said Empire State Development president, CEO, and commissioner Howard Zemsky, in a statement. “This South Bronx location offers easy access to the waterfront, multiple mass transit options, and a major highway and I’m certain that the Harlem River Yards central location and enormous potential will generate great interest from respondents looking to submit creative proposals.”
The land, north of the Willis Avenue Bridge along the Harlem River, is part of a 96-acre tract called Harlem River Yards. The industrial area is state-owned but managed through a general project plan—because of this designation, the state needs no city approvals to rezone and build on the land. In addition to housing and retail, the RFEI calls for parkland that allows access to the waterfront.
The state will continue to use the land as a transfer station even after the new development opens. Interested? Developers have until February 2 to submit a proposal.