Search results for "James Wines"

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Contested Ground
Flowing Gardens by GroundLab, the winning master plan in a competition for the International Horticultural Expo, will open this spring.
Courtesy GroundLab

Landscape architecture continues to experience a professional flowering based on the growing significance of sustainability and ecological issues as they relate to planning the broader built environment. But awareness is also growing among architects that they are no longer kings of the mountain. Gwen Webber scouts the perimeter of a possible turf war in the making.

If Ground Zero were up for grabs today would Michael Van Valkenburgh be a more likely candidate for master planner than Daniel Libeskind? It’s plausible. The recent surge in prestigious commissions going to and being completed by landscape architects has fuelled a fiery discourse over the ether as well as in academic circles as to what this means for the way cities will be made in the future. Traditionally, the architect was the master builder with landscape designers as mere ancillaries. Today that relationship is fast being reversed.

“Traditional roles have flipped,” said architect Stephen Cassell of ARO, who believes landscape architects should have equal footing on design projects because of their specialized training. “A lot of these landscape architecture firms have started to think about green spaces in a synthetic way. How landscape architects analyze a problem is very specific; it is about looking at experience within the city.”

Indeed, commissions that might have been won by architect-led teams just a few years ago are now going to landscape firms. And large-scale urban design competitions are going to landscape-led teams who demonstrate the capacity to design creatively with existing ecologies, such as the redevelopment of Seattle's waterfront by Field Operations, or urban regeneration initiatives like Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which aims to reinvigorate Eero Saarinen's iconic landmark through improved public areas by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).

GroundLab's Deep Ground master plan reenvisions the urban fabric of Longgang Municipality in Shenzen, China (left) and a rendering of an overlook structure for Hunters Point South, New York City designed by Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi (right).
Courtesy groundlab and Arup / Thomas Balsley Associates / Weiss/Manfredi

MVVA is a case in point. In 2007 the landscape architecture practice won a competition (among the other multidisciplinary contenders were Weiss/Manfredi of New York and Stoss of Boston) to develop Toronto's Lower Don Lands, a long-term phased scheme which will reroute the mouth of the Don River to the city's inner harbour, creating flood protection, new neighborhoods, a river-front park system as well as “humanize the existing infrastructure.”

Charles Waldheim, head of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, cites the Lower Don Lands project as exemplary of a decreasing emphasis on disciplinary boundaries and an increasing appreciation for ecological design, “MVVA assembled a very complex, multidisciplinary team,” he said in an interview. “Landscape urbanists have all the pieces.” As interest in ecological design grows, the need for landscape architects to deal with issues that architects aren't trained for also increases. “Landscape urbanism emerged to fill a void because planning and urban design had not provided an alternative,” said Waldheim, who has been a key proponent in bringing landscape urbanism to the fore and expanding the definitions of landscape architecture. According to Waldheim, the emergence of this faction of ecological designers snapping up high-profile projects is not a coincidence but rather the result of cumulative conditions.

In the late 20th century urban design was committed to recreating the 19th century shape of the city, he argues, in order to reinstate environmental and social values, while urban planners withdrew from physical planning to focus on demographics and social science. The perceived primacy of cars and demands for an expanded transport infrastructure in the 20th century pushed cities further out into sprawl and placed automobiles and traffic control at the center of city design. Later, during the 1990s, architects felt there was no option in which designers could be culturally progressive and simultaneously engaged with environmental or social concerns, leaving a dissatisfied subset of designers keen to reconcile the two.

Enter landscape urbanism, a term attributed by many to Waldheim, and certainly propagated by him. In any case, landscape urbanists are being recognized as key choreographers of urban space and they are beginning to subsume many of the roles once held by architects, planners, and urban designers. One such practice is London-based landscape architects GroundLab whose project Deep Ground recently won a competition to master plan a 4.6-square-mile area of Longgang in Shenzhen, China, drawing on urban design, planning, and environmental remediation to make a comprehensive, connected urban scene.

James Corner Field Operations' scheme for Seattle's waterfront redevelopment covers nine acres.
Courtesy Waterfront Seattle  [Click to enlarge.]

That's not to say that architects will be rendered powerless, but it does mean that they may have to cede total control, shedding the idea of sole authorship and autobiographical building and instead re-cognizing those others with more skill sets relevant to a given project.

Robert Balder, a director of planning and urban design at Gensler, observes that developers still tend to turn to big architecture firms for large-scale projects. But he notes that within many of these firms, landscape architects don’t have an equal place at the table. Balder, who also serves on the Urban Land Institute’s Council for Sustainable Development, predicts that as developers become more knowledgeable about sustainability requirements, cost, and functionality, the expertise of landscape architects will inevitably become more important earlier in the life of projects. “LEED can’t come at the end,” he said. “Landscape architects are often brought in when it’s too late.”

The 21st century is the Era of Ecology, according to James Wines of SITE a long-time proponent of ecologically-driven architecture, who says “the era of monument-building is coming to a close,” and with it ends the architect's pole position. “Architects who want to build a sculpture in the middle of space live in an antiquated world of endless resources,” he said. “Urban agriculture is the way forward. You can turn a place around based on a vegetated environment.”

In Toronto, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) won a competition to reimagine the relationship of the Don River to the city (top). MVVA is also leading a team in the redesign of the park surrounding the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (above).
Courtesy MVVA [Click to enlarge.]

As designers across the profession are increasingly faced with challenges that don't have a precedent and don’t correspond to traditional disciplinary boundaries, such as rising water levels, post-industrial cityscapes, waste, and a crippled climate, practices are repackaging and restructuring themselves in response. But the prospect of another professional group— particularly landscape architects—ascending to a decision-making role in the built environment still makes some squirm.

In a Wall Street Journal interview earlier this year, British architect Will Alsop accused landscape architecture of institutionalizing public space. And last fall at a New Urbanism symposium in New Orleans, the constant pot-stirrer Andres Duany announced in a provocation that quickly exploded on the blogosphere, “It’s not cool to be an architect. It’s cool to be a landscape architect. That’s the next cool thing.”

Deborah Marton, executive director at Design Trust for Public Space, believes it's a substantive shift rather than a trend. “It is about professional maturity,” said Marton, who believes the hierarchical structure of traditional design practice is redundant. “Each discipline brings something to a should be about which team is working well together and doing the best job of seeing the whole picture.”

For MoMA's 2010 Rising Currents show, nArchitects' New Aqueous City proposed a series of man-made islands (top) and floating piers (above).
Courtesy nArchitects

Indeed, the rise of landscape urbanism hasn't escaped public interest with interviews and articles in the national papers as well as on blogs. This kind of attention has propelled it from an academic discussion into a wider discourse, which, says Marton, is important to changing the very structure of design practice and ultimately municipal authority processes as well. Though the change is slow, there are solid examples of it happening. Philadelphia's long-awaited waterfront redesign recently shifted gears as it dropped plans for multi-story blocks and moved away from using a signature project to jump-start the city's master plan. Instead, the massive plan focuses on a string of parks as a stimulus for continued development.

Landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations is fitting his practice to the new mold. And while he had to struggle to get credit from architects on the immensely popular re-imagining of the High Line in New York, he is now leading a $569 million project to reconnect Seattle to Elliott Bay and create nine acres of new public space, a kind of prototypical antidote to the narrow commercialized waterfronts so common to many other U.S. cities. “There is a desperate need for a different kind of professional who is capable of seeing a bigger picture and choreographing a bigger team,” Corner told Metropolis in 2008.

Meanwhile at the GSD, Waldheim's newly appointed staff in the Landscape Architecture department is dedicated to building a trans-disciplinary faculty including ARO architect Cassell, who will be teaching this year alongside Susannah Drake of dlandstudio.

ARO and DLANDSTUDIO's proposal for MoMA's Rising Currents exhibition. The project for New York's Waterfront creates a New Urban Ground of marshes and wetlands to protect against storm surges.
Courtesy ARO/DLANDSTUDIO [Click to enlarge.]

Cassell and Drake have partnered before at the “Rising Currents” exhibition last year at the Museum of Modern Art. That path-breaking exhibition challenged architects to respond to an environmental catastrophe and called for “soft” infrastructures and ecological design solutions, bringing architects and specialists in ecological design together in close and productive collaborative efforts that attracted the close attention of developers and city officials alike.

For his Rising Currents project, Eric Bunge of nArchitects composed his team of designers with various skill sets including Mathur/da Cunha as water specialist. Like the other collaborative teams that were formed for the exhibition, his suggests that in the future it won’t take a constructed disaster scenario to make architects realize the value of landscape designers.

Bunge said that he still sees landscape architecture and architecture as having different trajectories that need one another at points in the design process. But whether or not they are complete equals on the job, Bunge possibly speaks for many architects today when he said, “It is too early to say.”

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Towering Insult in Mumbai
SITE's original competition concept.
Courtesy SITE

It wasn’t even silly season a few months ago when the design media started going bananas over the world’s most expensive house, a 27-story concrete tower in Mumbai with six floors of parking, nine elevator banks, three helipads, a four-story open garden, health club, swimming pool, 50-seat theater, and cooling “snow” room, for starters.

The Antilia Tower is nearing completion and belongs to Mukesh Ambani, India’s wealthiest citizen and chairman of Reliance Industries. Journalists have called it “Godzilla-sized” and a “behemoth Tower of Babel,” while other reports delve deeper, casting its Vaastu principles of organization and living walls as a modern-day Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

James Wines of SITE is not amused. The longer copy is lifted directly, he says, from descriptions of a project he entered into the original competition for the Ambani residence in 2004. Besides SITE, the short list included Ken Yeang, Foster + Partners, Wilkinson Eyre, and Perkins+Will, the ultimate winners of the commission. SITE’s submission was for a stack of public gardens with a residence at the top: “Within this Vaastu tradition, the spine is regarded as the main source of support of the building, symbolically leading upward toward enlightenment. The various floor planes encompass a variety of garden tiers, terraces, water falls, ponds, recreational facilities, and enclosed living areas.”

This description has been largely appropriated as the description of the origins of the completed building. Wines is perturbed by the conflation: “I am sure SITE’s dilemma represents an archetypal scenario for a lot of architects these days who find themselves working in countries where there is little respect for ideas and no laws protecting ‘intellectual property’.”

Perkins+Will has had complaints of its own, expressed as early as 2007 in Architectural Record. The firm emphasized then that the project is as much corporate meeting facility as residence, and that hydroponically grown plants will create, according to Perkins+Will design principal Ralph Johnson, a green area “five to 10 times what it would be if you just did a green roof.” The comparisons to Indian traditions of Vaastu, an integral part of SITE’s concertedly sustainable proposal, still often show up in descriptions of the Perkins+Will tower for Ambani. “We sent them a protest letter but never heard back,” Wines said. “We really don’t want to be associated with this level of economic obscenity.”

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Smart Move at Small Scale, Big Change
Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag's METI Handmade School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh (2004-06).
Kurt Horbst

Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, New York
Through January 3, 2011

Timing is everything in the exhibition world. With the October 2 opening of MoMA’s Small Scale, Big Change show, the curators got it right. In the past, this hallowed institution has been chastised by the art world’s cutting edge for its too little/too late endorsement of emerging trends. As evidence, MoMA’s sometimes imperious cultural arbiters have tended to remain on safer ground by repeatedly staging epochal art and design surveys, primarily gleaned from the stellar permanent collections for which the museum is globally famous. This propensity for prudence has been a rather embarrassing confirmation of Gertrude Stein’s prophetic assessment of MoMA’s mission, when she turned down founding director Alfred Barr’s request for her art collection: “You can be a museum, or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.”

Stein’s critique was challenged during the museum’s heady years under American Art curator Dorothy Miller, who from the 1940s through the 1960s was acclaimed for her passionate progressivism and advocacy of seminal new talent. Since then, unfortunately, there has been a discernible aura of detachment from the untidy turbulence of the avant-garde. As a consequence, MoMA’s curatorial elite has often been content to mine the past for aesthetic content and avoid controversy by cautiously back-peddling its way through the contemporary art scene. This has resulted in the showcasing of a peculiar “if-you-please” brand of new work, which circuitously (but often too feebly) reflects the museum’s modernist foundations. The tendency has been particularly characteristic of architecture and design shows, which have continued to confirm a formalist bias and MoMA’s unwavering commitment to its modernist, Cubist, and Constructivist origins.

Elemental's Quinta Monroy Housing Project in Iquique, Chile (2003-05).
Cristobal Palma

In terms of social/environmental principles and theoretical relevance, curators Andres Lepik and Margot Weller have pulled together a brilliant exhibition that contributively folds into the current flow of advanced architectural thinking. Any overview of student drafting tables and computer desktops in leading design schools over the past five years reveals a highly motivated generation, with a strong commitment to more socially, economically, and ecologically aware building agendas. In fact, for a vast and growing number of young designers, the preceding generation’s proclivity for sculptural bombast, exaltation of toxic materials, waste of fossil fuels, and break-the-bank budgets is pure anathema. At the same time—and citing an even more reviled chapter of recent history—this new generation rejects the fading postmodernist tradition, as embodied in those rather cloying pastiches of regional/ historical style. In particular, their targets of disdain include Disneyland main streets and travelogue Vegas casinos, as well as New Urbanism’s decorous offspring in Celebration and Seaside, Florida.

While the Small Scale, Big Change exhibition reveals its fair share of design clichés and modernist-derived formal strategies, the fundamental dedication to economy of means and social concern is commendable in the extreme. This being said, the most difficult task in designing for politically oppressed, racially segregated, and economically challenged communities is understanding the inhabitants’ day-to-day realities. For example, when disenfranchised people at the poverty level create their own habitat—especially that highly inventive garbage housing so often cited for praise by the design world—their gut-level vitality and enterprising invention is based on a radical state of urgency. It is a condition of basic survival and expediency that, in all probability, is rarely understood by those “socially responsible” architects who have been conditioned by the comfort zones of economic security and haute conception sensibilities. While expressing compassion and understanding, their imported solutions for destitute neighborhoods are too often conceived from a combination of Harvard/Yale aesthetic, alien social sensibility, and naïve idealism.

Diébédo Francis Kéré's Primary School in Gando, Burkina Faso (1999-2001).
Siméon Duchoud/Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The best works in Small Scale, Big Change have confronted and worked successfully with these complex problems of contextual response. The METI/Anna Heringer Handmade School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh demonstrates a sensitive awareness of regional scale, materials, and construction processes. The architect knew and deeply understood the community’s standards and aspirations from her long-term residence. Also, by choosing a school environment, she enabled a building type that everyone could enthusiastically endorse from the outset as a necessary, unifying force in the township. Furthermore, by engaging local labor and materials, her final work achieves that rare integration of high aesthetic, appropriate technology, and communicative imagery. Masterfully conceived, the completed structure seems like it has always been there.

The main virtues of Diébédo Francis Kéré’s Primary School in the West African village of Gando are its careful attention to sustainable values and regionally available materials. Over nine years, the structure has proven to be not only a successful educational institution in terms of spatial organization and air circulation, but also extraordinarily durable in spite of consistent and punishing occupancy. At the same time, the highly formalized design resolution seems to have come more from the architect’s education in Berlin than from his inherent sensitivity to local ambience and the more imaginative ideas that might have been extracted from West Africa’s richly varied psychological and cultural sources.

Rural Studio's $20K House VIII in Newbern, Alabama (2009).
Timothy Hursley

Moving on through the exhibition, Hashim Sarkis’ Housing for Fishermen in Lebanon demonstrates a great deal of sympathy for inside/ outside living accommodations and response to climate and efficient planning issues. The final resolution, however, in terms of form and color, seems to have popped out of some academic institution’s regional design manual, as opposed to being a deeply researched and creatively orchestrated extension of Middle Eastern housing over the centuries. Michael Maltzan’s Inner City Arts complex in Los Angeles ended up a little too sanitized for the constituency it is intended to serve. Given the idiosyncratic character of this Skid Row community, it would seem that rather than pristine white walls, the surroundings should offer myriad surfaces for spontaneous wall paintings, stages for nascent rap groups, automobile  enhancement shops, and meeting places full of neighborhood-related artifacts. It is always a mistake for critical writers to offer design input; but in this case, it does seem that a rough and tumble collage of local participation might have been the better choice.

Dave’s House by Rural Studio, consistent with the imaginative productions of this Alabama-based educational ensemble, is admirably simple, economical, and green. It also possesses a faintly perverse character, because it seems like the exact replica of a dumb habitat, elevated to art status by its subtle interventions. Reminiscent of numerable regional house styles ranging from New Orleans to the Southwest, this archetypal dwelling achieves a special brand of aesthetic nobility, which becomes simultaneously acceptable to any local user and applauded by a MoMA curator. The only regrettable legacy of Rural Studio’s founder, Sam Mockbee, is his widespread influence on architectural education across the U.S. What has emerged is a kind of “frugal ideal” kit of parts—now endlessly appropriated by any faculty member or student who aspires to socially conscious design. The frugality part is great, but the assimilation of Sam’s stylistic influence is fast becoming an academy in itself.

Renderings showing the transformation of the Bois-le-Prêtre Tower in Paris, by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal (2006-11).
Courtesy Druot, Lacaton & Vassal

Some of the projects included in the exhibition are well-designed solutions for less-than-urgent situations. The compelling community need, culturally responsive habitat, and minimum cost exigencies that seem to have shaped the primary objective of the exhibit also tend to marginalize certain endeavors. In this context, some structures seem more passively contributive to the collective ambitions of the show. The works include Elemental’s Quinta Monroy Housing in Iquique, Chile, where the issues of density and low-cost dwelling space have been very successfully resolved within a previously depressed area of the city. Similarly, the Druot/ Lacaton/Vassal transformation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris represents the reinvention of a dreary housing block into a masterfully orchestrated symphony of delicately wrought balconies and spatially enhanced apartment extensions.

The work of Estudio Teddy Cruz has long been admired in the design world for its social conscience and edgy imagination. The firm’s Casa Familiar housing in San Ysidro, California contains all of the deft formal means identified with Cruz. Still, the project seems to lack the insouciant wit, cultural absorption, and social advocacy characteristic of his best work. There is a satisfying choice of formal interaction among the collective “Living Rooms,” yet the ensemble effect is somehow too proper and politically correct to reinforce Cruz’s oft-stated anti-establishment mission.

Urban-Think Tank's Metro Cable in Caracas, Venezuela (2007-10).
Iwan Baan

One of the more frustrating contributions to the show is the Urban-Think Tank’s Metro Cable in Caracas. Here was the pinnacle opportunity to bring mass transport to a previously isolated, garbage-housed section of the city, capping off the whole endeavor with a truly site-specific architectural response. Regrettably, the architects chose to ignore the veritable mountain of imaginative collage construction directly underneath the metro station, and instead impose a high-tech, starship-like facility on top of this wealth of gritty source material. In some ways, a number of the projects in this show suffer from a similar lack of “pushing the envelope,” in terms of contextual inclusion.

Any nitpicking is not intended to diminish the vast importance of the show. The bottom line here is the fact that the MoMA team of Lepik and Weller has assembled a cohesive and beautifully mounted exhibition, while contributing significantly to the ultimate 21st-century discourse on human habitat. Smaller scale, economic imperatives, environmental initiatives, and the ability to transform frugality itself into art, are the new raw materials of progressive design. In the end, this soul-searching challenge is just as much about aesthetic innovation as it is about socially responsible action.

Read all of AN's Friday Reviews here.

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Tabula Roses
Superstudio, Continuous Monument (1969)
All images courtesy MoMA

Drawn from the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, In Situ: Architecture and Landscape takes a non-dogmatic view of architecture’s relationship to landscape, and the importance of landscape architecture in general, in the 20th century. As it reflects the architecture and design department’s attitudes toward landscape since MoMA’s inception, the exhibit may signal a greater appreciation for the discipline—and for sustainability—in the century to come.

The show’s central premise is that in recent decades, the notion of landscape has taken on an expanded definition in architecture. “In the first half of the twentieth century,” the introductory wall text notes, “the architectural avant-garde celebrated autonomy from nature, and architects devised utopian schemes for creating urban realms ex novo, with little consideration for their surroundings.”

MoMA, of course, played a greater role in defining the parameters and members of the architectural avant-garde than any other institution. The text, again without comment, continues to point out that more recently, environmental challenges and rapidly expanding cities have pushed architects to revise their understanding of landscape: “Harmony between the spatial, social, and environmental aspects of human life has become a priority in political thought, and this has had profound reverberations in both architecture and landscape design.”

Roberto Burle Marx, Dusque de Cexias Square (1948)

In Situ does not offer up specifically what this new understanding of landscape may be. Instead, it presents drawings, models, and a single video with minimal commentary, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps and draw his or her own conclusions.

Some of these works are beautiful, and mine the subject of landscape deeply, while others seem only tangentially engaged with the subject. Indeed the vast majority of the projects, which include houses, parks, cemeteries, and visionary urban schemes, are by architects. These include large models of classics like Fallingwater, which is so well known for its innovative site planning that its inclusion seems unnecessary, and Richard Neutra’s even earlier Lovell House, which in this context looks more literally groundbreaking.

Remarkably, a work as blunt and hard-edged as Superstudio’s Continuous Monument, with its ravishing representations of the superstructure set in cragged seashores and transformed cityscapes, looks sensitive compared to Bernard Tschumi’s or Zaha Hadid’s designs for the Parc de la Villette, which repeat the “ex novo” approach described in the wall text.

Similarly prescient are two of James Wines and SITE’s Best Products Stores, which, though they are suburban big-box stores, engage and comment on their context in intelligent, witty, and—at least in the cases of the Forest Building and the Terrarium Showroom—ecologically responsive ways. Works by Yona Friedman and Andrea Branzi also suggest that designers of the 1960s were thinking critically about urban and environmental conditions, and deserve the current reexamination they are receiving in the academy.

SITE, Terrarium Elevations (1979)

Of the works included, two of these projects depart from the others. A pair of site plans by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx are as aesthetically arresting as many of the paintings in the adjacent galleries. The only work in the show by a landscape architect, the plans clearly conform to the museum’s standards of beauty.

Teddy Cruz’s Non Stop Sprawl: MacMansion Retrofitted Project stands out for its direct political and social engagement—Cruz interviews Mexican immigrants for their ideas about the exurban United States. This work’s recent acquisition by MoMA seems to signal a newly pluralistic attitude on the part of the department.

In Situ suggests that the museum may be as instrumental in integrating landscape and sustainability into the discourse of architecture and design in the new century as they were in defining the architectural avant-garde in the last. That, at least, marks a welcome change of terrain.

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Inside The Box
Hastings Head Start Childhood Center, located in an old Kmart building in Hastings, Nebraska.
Julia Christensen

Big Box Reuse
Julia Christensen
MIT Press, $29.95

Julia Christensen grew up in Bardstown, Kentucky, a town known for its bourbon whiskey and historic architecture. There, she saw Wal-Mart come to town, build and then abandon a big box store, which ended up as the site of the new county courthouse. A writer and photographer who teaches at Oberlin College, Christensen was inspired to visit and photograph other big boxes like Winn-Dixie and Kmart that have been repurposed. Her photographs are currently on view in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where her images are included in the show Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes.

In Big Box Reuse, Christensen highlights ten cases. The huge metal sheds have been converted to Head Start centers, senior care facilities, indoor go-kart tracks, and libraries. One houses a Route 66 Museum in Lebanon, Missouri, another the Spam Museum and offices of the Hormel meatpacking company in Austin, Minnesota. One has become a church in Pinellas Park, Florida. None are especially great or inspiring architecture, but several involve extensive refurbishing that nearly disguise their origins.

Christensen’s travels are proof, if we needed it, that Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn belongs in the architectural canon alongside Delirious New York, Learning from Las Vegas, and Vers Une Architecture. On the highway, however, reuse is more about earning than learning: Budgets are minimal and the repurposing work, it turns out, requires more than simply redecorating these giant sheds. But while we regularly honor architects for urban reuse, Christensen reports that several of the architects involved in projects were too embarrassed by the work to want their names used. Some of the facilities are grim, others less so, though none of the architects here are as sophisticated as James Wines and SITE’s witty Best Products stores from the 1970s. Still, real creativity is evident, for all the budget limits, in the library and museum in Missouri. Credit goes to Joan True and Charlie Johnson, the interior and exterior architects of that project.

We are accustomed to reuse in the city—former sweatshops housing fashion labels and lofts for printing presses sheltering ad agencies—but pay less attention to reuse elsewhere. Still, it is there. Perhaps you have to be a certain age to recognize the many former Howard Johnson’s restaurants or A&P grocery stores that now vend dinette sets or carpet remnants. Not far from my home in New Jersey, the steep blue roof of an erstwhile International House of Pancakes sells iPhones as an AT&T store. Reuse along the highway will increasingly become a fact of life as more big boxes become available in the current economy. As I write this, Circuit City has just announced bankruptcy and plans to close more than a hundred stores, and Linens N’ Things is running its liquidation sale. Architects looking for work in the current climate would do well to keep their eyes hopefully trained on America’s highway strips for signs of potential. The way seems open for more clever ideas of building inside these modern “ruins.”

Readers may be surprised to learn that up to this point growth, not recession, has made most of these buildings available. Wal-Mart finds it more economical to build a new, larger store down the road than to expand an existing one, leaving empty stores behind like so much discarded snakeskin. Moreover, the chain wants to keep the empty stores as placeholders against competitors, Christensen reports.

It would be easy to react to her stories with anger and indignation at the power of chains that have decimated Main Streets (reuse is struggling there), and bemoan a country where the shivering, starving public sector is forced to wear the cast-off clothing of an uncontrolled private one. Christensen, however, is more encouraged by this process than others might be, although some of the statements from officials involved in these projects seem naively optimistic, even boosterish. I wonder how many other efforts to reuse other big box buildings have been in vain; most of her tales have upbeat endings.

Yet the subliminal message of Christensen’s photographs, which are reminiscent of Stephen Shore’s—empty of people, with expanses of alienating asphalt parking lot or sheet metal facade—is less hopeful than her words. And Christensen’s case studies raise more general questions she doesn’t answer: How durable are these buildings? What is the responsibility of the big chains? What can law or planning do to make big box reuse easier, perhaps by studying the modular mode of malls? (Pull out a Gap, plug in a Delia*s as fashions change.)

Still, Christensen’s enthusiasm is an antidote to cynicism, encouraging and humane. “As I stand there in the parking lot,” she writes, “snapping photos of that reused Wal-Mart sign, I look around and observe an endless ribbon of strip malls, full of buildings just like this. I think to myself, they have stories too. All of these faceless, nameless, corporate big box buildings—which turn over so quickly for the sake of ‘business’—actually have stories behind them, stories well hidden behind their stoic facades. These buildings have an impact on the lives of people.”

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Comment: James Wines
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's 140 Broadway, completed in 1967, with Isamu Noguchi's Red Cube.
Ezra Stoller/Esto

When I first received Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe’s 2007 greeting announcing PlaNYC, I felt a great wave of exhilaration—probably the same one experienced by all architects, landscape architects, and planners who have fantasized about a nascent era of great design sponsored by visionary leadership in City Hall. Office interiors were spruced up, websites revised, and principals’ sartorial splendor amplified in anticipation of knocks at the door from beneficent developers and eco-conscious politicians who would beseech us to create the New York City of tomorrow.

As my fantasy faded to something resembling reality, I tried to grasp the magnitude of the gauntlet thrown down by the mayor. With selfish concern for my own studio’s chances of participation in this metropolitan dream, I also wondered whether there would ever be a significant opening up of the job market for small design firms—or would all the request for qualifications (RFQ) documents arrive with their onerous requirements for mega-building experience, multi-million-dollar liability protection, hundreds of consultants under one roof, and the thinly veiled implication that success depended on the invitee’s ability to invest in competitive bidding (with free design services tossed in to sweeten the deal)?

By the time Adrian’s call for designer involvement in an expanded parks program arrived, my enthusiasm for PlaNYC had been diminished by memories of futile efforts to break into New York’s public space job market. Since my firm, SITE, is an architectural practice that focuses on parks and plazas (but mostly works abroad, where there is less resistance to innovative solutions and green principles), I could see the handwriting on the wall: The future would be sponsored, controlled, designed, and built by the same cast of characters that has dominated the city’s architecture and planning markets for the past 30 years.

Clearly, the tasks outlined in PlaNYC—repairing infrastructure, constructing affordable housing, reducing traffic, improving mass transit, and saving energy—are top priorities. But by focusing on these imperatives, an investment in imaginative ideas for the social, psychological, and aesthetic resolution of parks, streets, and gardens should not be assigned to the back burners. (Just look at Detroit and Cleveland!) The usual tactic of favoring operational efficiency and restorative technology, at the expense of social interaction and access to nature, has demonstrated how such legislative abandonment can destroy the very “quality of life” that a massive investment in infrastructure is meant to preserve.

My fear that New York’s grand park plans may become another blueprint for business as usual was confirmed by news accounts early in the game. When the mayor’s original challenge was issued in December 2007, it proposed to open 90 percent of the city’s waterways for recreation by limiting water pollution and preserving our natural areas. But earlier that year, the Regional Plan Association was already complaining that the city had planned for more park expansions than it could afford. This suggests that public space may become PlaNYC’s first casualty, and I suspect that similar economic and political inertia will thwart the mayor’s water, transportation, energy, and air improvement agendas.

Still, in the hope that such initiatives may succeed, I want to emphasize a few issues that have enormous impact on the way our city’s parks and gardens have been shaped until now, and on how they will be designed in the future. It is no secret that most public spaces constructed in New York over the past two decades have been based on Modernist traditions. The ingredients invariably include a massive slab of concrete, donut fountains, “plop-art” sculptures, and a scattering of park benches. The reasons for this formulaic consistency can be found in the politics of architectural employment and the entrenchment of a Robert Moses–era planning legacy.

Clearly, we can do better. But for a flexible climate of creativity to succeed, city agencies must first provide a less labyrinthine and preferential RFQ process. It should certainly encourage smaller architecture and landscape offices to compete for city commissions by placing more value on the applicant’s track record of creativity. Since the criteria for what constitutes “creativity” can vary according to taste and time, the Parks Department might do well to sponsor a monthly series of public-space design symposia, where new talents would have a chance to showcase their visions and learn more about RFQ procedures.

City Hall and the Parks Department can improve the RFQ process, but they obviously can’t legislate better design. For this reason, I have a few items of cautionary advisement to offer. First, there should be enough memorable features in a park or plaza to encourage people to travel out of their way to see the space and, after leaving, tell their friends about it. Second, public space is successful to the degree that people look attractive to each other and are encouraged to interact in new ways. Designers should be sensitized to “prosthetic engagement,” where body movement and pedestrian interaction become as much a part of the raw material of design as paving, steel, and vegetation. Third, parks, plazas, and gardens should involve all of the senses in equal measure. And fourth, the design of public space today includes an awareness of “integrated systems.” This suggests a design philosophy based on understanding the parallels between the components of electronic communications and their symbiotic equivalents in nature.

If Mayor Bloomberg expects his plea for new ideas to reach high fertility, his passion for change must reflect a more psychologically engaging and aesthetically innovative brand of street and park life for New York City. There must also be support for a truly civic-minded “mandate for change.” Today, this means green and sustainable. By Manhattan standards, being green is a rather restrained and puritanical notion—the antithesis of Big Apple optimism. If the green movement ever expects to conquer New York, it must reverse its scold tactics and provide the same kind of inspiring catalyst for change that the industrial revolution offered our flamboyantly receptive island over a hundred years ago. This means shaping and selling a persuasive new “philosophy of the environment.” Come on Mayor Bloomberg, let’s go for it!