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Editorial: Pedlocking Broadway

General gladness and near unanimous support greeted Mayor Bloomberg’s February 27announcement that he was malling Times and Herald squares by closing off portions of Broadway in the interest of easing traffic, widening sidewalks, and reclaiming some three acres for pedestrian use. The Regional Planning Association has been pitching the idea since 1974, and so the group’s president, Robert Yaro, was triumphant: “This plan is a win-win-win strategy for New York’s motorists, its residents, workers, visitors and property owners. All will benefit as the City’s Broadway plan is brought quickly to reality.” Streetsblog called it “a bold transformative new vision.” And what’s not to like? The $1.5million plan is supposed to reduce southbound motor vehicle travel times by 17percent on 7thAvenue, and northbound travel times by 37percent on 6thAvenue. And the Naked Cowboy will have someplace to sit down.

The notion of banning cars on Broadway has reared up every decade or so since the 1960s, when a malling craze seized the entire country from Kalamazoo (where the first downtown pedestrian zone opened in 1959) to Atlanta. Only 15percent of 200pedestrian malls survived, according to Sam Staley, director of urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation; the ones that did not were absent two essential ingredients: plenty of pedestrians and a unique sense of place, with viable retail. Those two are resoundingly on hand in Times Square, and always have been, along with efforts to subtract the traffic. In 1977, a $500,000federal grant was paid to the city to create an “experimental pedestrian mall” with trees and potted plants that—just like the one announced by Bloomberg—would become permanent if it worked. And that was the last we heard of a plan that made local businesses fear they’d lose curbside traffic; annoyed taxi drivers for the inconvenience; and flew against the city’s thinking at the time that only more and wider roads could make traffic flow faster. This time around, things are different, not least because the plan seems motivated in part by the mayor’s determination to have something highly visible go his way after congestion pricing went so wrong. The attitude of other stakeholders has also changed—except perhaps the taxi drivers—reflecting more enlightened thinking about public amenities and transportation. They get it now: Cars in the city are headed for extinction.

And yet as radical as the plan is, it was disappointing to see it quite so completely devoid of design. As Deborah Marton, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, pointed out, “No one thinks these plazas should look this way. Just claiming the ground was kind of heroic; they can always go back and rethink the detailing.” That’s true, but why doesn’t the Department of Transportation, which is spearheading the plan, have a landscape design consultant on call to sketch up a vision that’s a little less ad hoc, more layered, and not so isolated from side streets? The agency’s so-called piazza islands—like the new pedestrian spaces at Madison Square and 14thStreet—are risible for their smatterings of cafe tables and glued-in-place gravel. Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan deserves enormous credit for shaking the lead off this decades-old plan and making something happen that this time might stick. It’s still a shame, however, that landscape designers seem to belong to the second wave of the solution, not the first.

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The A-Lists
Completed in 2008, the STV-designed Engine Company 277 in Bushwick is one of the first built works of the city's Design and Construction Excellence Initiative. The design won an Art Commission award in 2004.
Bernard James/City of New York

As a peer-review architect for the U.S. General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program, Karen Bausman of Karen Bausman + Associates is enthusiastic about public work. “From my perspective, the barrier between public architecture and all other architecture is closing,” she said. “Public architecture is now at the forefront of developing the design ideas that will fulfill our 21st-century needs.” The New York–based architect has herself plunged into the public realm, designing two projects at Ferry Point Park in the South Bronx for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Her views may sound a little too optimistic to some. Over the past several decades, the legacy of public architecture has been such that municipally released Requests for Proposals have more likely caused design firms to hide their heads in despair than jump at the chance. Known primarily for modest budgets, Byzantine bureaucratic proceedings, and poor construction quality, the public realm has remained the domain of the ideologically dedicated—or of large firms looking to burnish their public image after profiting handsomely from private developer jobs.

Designed by arquitectonica, the Bronx Museum of the Arts won an art commission award in 2003 and became the model for the city's dce program.
norman mcgrath

But that trend, in New York City at least, is changing fast. The number of architects of all stripes competing for public contracts (involving nearly 100 projects per year) has more than doubled in the last five years. With private developer work about as plentiful as the saber tooth tiger, billions of dollars are set to flow into the public realm. Part of this tectonic shift can also be attributed to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Design and Construction Excellence Initiative (DCE), which has turned what was once the ugly stepchild of the profession into a hot date.

Bloomberg first announced DCE in 2004, along with the 22nd annual Art Commission Awards for Excellence in Design, which recognized eight city projects that exemplified the highest design standards, including Polshek Partnership’s entrance pavilion at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The purpose of DCE, the mayor stated, was “to expand our city’s pre-eminence as the design capital of the world,” by encouraging city agencies “to strive for the same level of excellence in design for all public works—large and small—that is recognized annually by the Art Commission’s Awards.” While DCE is a citywide initiative, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), headed by Commissioner David J. Burney, was placed in charge of spearheading it. The Parks Department, which manages its own design and construction projects, also took an active role. The first step was to revamp the city’s method of procuring design services.

Since time out of mind, public architecture projects have been awarded based on one driving factor: the lowest bid. This has proven an effective method for politicians wishing to exhibit their thrifty application of taxpayer dollars, but for obvious reasons, hasn’t always attracted the best architects or resulted in the finest work. DDC turned the tables on this method by removing price competition as the prime motivator in procurement, instituting a quality-based selection process. “I think that the perception, for better or worse, was that the city had a tendency to focus on schedule and budget. One measures those and defends the taxpayer’s dollar, and quality takes a back seat,” Burney told AN. “The idea was to reinstate quality in the minds of every project manager. We now have a series of initiatives to make that happen.”

DDC developed two new methods of procurement, streamlining the RFP process to attract the right architect to the right project and to allow a greater range of firms the opportunity of winning public commissions. (Not all designers have marketing departments at the ready to fill out 90-page competition forms.) The first method is for large projects of $25 million or more, such as the Brooklyn House of Detention or the new Police Academy to be built in Queens. In this method, two-stage RFPs are issued for each project. During the first stage, a committee that includes at least one outside professional peer evaluates respondents and ranks them based on their sub-consultants, the education and experience of their project team, and their design record. The top firms are then invited to submit detailed proposals during stage two. At the conclusion of the second stage, the city begins fee negotiations with the highest technically ranked firm. “The DDC’s new selection process guarantees a level of attention to architecture,” explained Todd Schliemann, a partner at Polshek Partnership Architects, which has completed countless projects for New York City. “It wasn’t so long ago that they insisted on practicality over design.”

dce projects now beginning  construction include the ocean breeze indoor track facility on Staten Island by Sage and Coombe...
COURTESY Sage and Coombe

... And Bushwick inlet park in williamsburg by Kiss + Cathcart
COURTESY Kiss + Cathcart

The second method, for projects of less than $25 million, involves the selection of a panel of consultants who become the city’s go-to architects for projects in this budget range. As with the first stage of the RFP process in method one, architects are invited to apply to be on the panel and are evaluated based on their relevant experience and the quality of their portfolio. Firms that are selected are awarded 24-month on-call contracts with the city and are given the option of submitting proposals to projects as they become available. To keep the submission process fair and distribute the work evenly to large and small firms, this category is further subdivided into projects of less than $10 million and projects of $10 to $25 million. In the less-than-$10 million range, which thus far has accounted for approximately 50 projects every year, the city selects a panel of 24 small firms (defined as having ten or fewer employees) for each contract period. These have included firms like Andrew Berman Architect, Lyn Rice Architects, and Toshiko Mori. The remainder of the work, in the $10 to $25 million range, is offered to a panel of eight larger firms, such as Polshek Partnership, Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects, and Grimshaw.

“For each project that becomes available, the DDC issues an RFP to the 24 firms,” said Adam Marcus of Marble Fairbanks, which has been included in the DDC’s $10 million-and-under on-call list since 2005. “We usually submit proposals for each one, but it’s not required.” The firm’s diligence has paid off, and it currently has four projects under DCE: a cultural center and a fire station on Staten Island, an arts center in the Bronx, and a library in Queens. “DDC is very involved throughout the process. Their input usually is helpful and they’re right about a lot of things. There’s definitely additional work dealing with the bureaucracy, but in general it’s been pretty good and we’ve found their reviewers easy to work with.”

This method of procurement, along with the completion of a string of high-profile public projects including the Bronx Museum of the Arts by Arquitectonica, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum by Rafael Viñoly, and the Queens Botanical Garden by BKSK Architects, has had the effect that Bloomberg desired, and an increasing number of firms are showing interest in city work. In 2005, when the first round of contracts was issued, the DDC received applications from 178 firms. In 2007, the second round of contracts, DDC received 237 applications—a 33 percent increase. A similar increase in applications is expected when the next round of RFPs goes out late this summer, and the competition will be all the more fierce as the city expects to complete less work as a result of the faltering economy. “This round, we’re only going to issue on-call contracts to 20 firms,” said Burney. “We have less work now, due to budget cuts.”

The news is not all bleak, and there is still ample hope for high-design architects to find satisfying work in a city that values design. The Parks Department, the only other city agency that issues its own series of on-call contracts using the same methods as the DDC, has a $3 billion budget to spend on capital improvements over the next ten years. The first generation of Parks DCE projects is now going into construction, including the Bushwick Inlet Community Center by Kiss + Cathcart Architects, the McCarren Park Pool renovation by Rogers Marvel, and the Union Square Comfort Station by ARO. The agency is actually increasing the number of architects it will hire from six firms to eight. In addition, Parks also issues eight contracts to landscape architecture firms. RFPs for Parks’ latest round of contracts were due at the end of February, and while official numbers were not released as of press time, the number of applications has nearly doubled from the last count of 115 submissions.

The Marble Fairbanks-designed Glen Oaks Branch Library in Queens was commissioned by the DDC and is currently under construction.
Courtesy Marble Fairbanks

The fact that New York City values design and has implemented strategies to increase its weight as a factor in public works is heartening, but the question that must be on the minds of many architects right now is whether pursuing these jobs can keep them afloat. While the city’s process of finding architects has changed, its fee structure has not. The city has a sliding fee curve—based on percentage of overall construction cost—that is derived from a combination of previous contracts for the same services, adjusted for inflation, and information from a New York State analysis of contract fees. The lower the construction cost, the higher the percentage the fee accounts for. For example, a $100,000 project offers a 15.13 percent design fee, or $15,129. A $25 million project, on the other hand, offers a 6.08 percent design fee, or $1,520,375.

Without doing a detailed economic analysis of architecture firms, their fees, and their profit margins, it seems that this pay structure is more beneficial to the smaller fish in the architecture pool. Speaking about his firm’s extensive public work for New York, Schliemann said, “I’m not going to tell you that we make a great deal of money, but it’s a great contribution to the city.” On the other hand, city commissions account for approximately one third of Marble Fairbanks’ work.

DCE is an admirable addition to the administration of New York City, but it is just one part of a greater initiative to make this town a better designed, more egalitarian, and more sustainable place. The city’s overall 2030 strategy also includes requirements for green design and a degree of diversity among those hired to complete public work. “What has been very satisfying to me,” said Bausman, “is that my voice is listened to and I have an opportunity to help re-imagine the city. The city is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. It’s great to finally have a seat at the table.”

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Open: The Greatbatch Pavilion
Biff Henrich

The Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion
125 Jewett Parkway, Buffalo, New York
Tel: 716-856-3858
Designer: Toshiko Mori Architect

Opening to the public tomorrow, the Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Pavilion, a new addition to the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York, highlights Wright’s signature Prairie style through a sublimely contrasting aesthetic. Designed by Toshiko Mori of New York–based Toshiko Mori Architect, the $5 million pavilion can be seen as a reinterpretation of Wright’s classic “organic principles,” integrating the surrounding landscape while meeting the programmatic needs of the complex, a site of architectural pilgrimage that is home to both the Darwin D. Martin House and the George F. Barton House, plus sundry outbuildings including a pergola, conservatory, carriage house, and gardener’s cottage.

Part of an ambitious, multi-year restoration and expansion of the complex—Wright’s largest residential ensemble—the 7,775-square-foot, glass-paneled pavilion houses interpretive exhibitions, interactive touch screen programs, and a visitor orientation film. The new structure, which sits unobtrusively across a courtyard from the main house, reflects Wright’s overarching structural logic: His archetypal Prairie style is echoed by the building’s cantilevered hip roof and low, horizontal profile, while the dimensions of the glass-paneled exterior and floor plans derive from the proportions and scale of the 1905 Martin House. Mori carefully updates Wright’s formal vocabulary with materials such as stainless-steel columns and high-performance glass, providing thermal insulation while maximizing daylight. The triple-glazed windows also provide visitors with the most important benefit of all—uninterrupted views of Wright’s masterpiece next door.

Biff Henrich
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Design for the Younger Set
Perhaps one explanation for why there's so much mediocre architecture and planning in this country is that we were never taught anything about it as youngsters. In fact most kids don't even have access to an art history class until they reach college; and don't even try asking them who their favorite architect is. But a few new kids architecture books could help change that, or at least inspire younger people to start appreciating the built world around them. Where Things Are From Near To Far (Planetizen Press), by Tim Halbur and Chris Steins (with illustrations by David Ryan) introduces very young kids to basic concepts of urban planning, giving them an appreciation for the changing, dynamic urban environment. The colorful book follows the path of a young boy, Hugo, as he makes his way with his mom through six different environments; from a dense urban core all the way to the countryside.  The progression is based on the "urban-to-rural transect," developed by New Urbanist Andrés Duany, which divides cities into six different zones, and at its end introduces kids to the person who decides how all of this will be created: a smiling urban planner. Another, The Modern Architecture Pop Up Book (Rizzoli), by David Sokol and Anton Radevsky, includes pop-ups, fold-overs, and slide-outs (and short descriptions) of most of the best-known Modern architecture produced over the last 125 years or so. That includes London’s Crystal Palace; the Brooklyn Bridge; the Eiffel Tower; New York’s Flatiron Building; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, Chicago; Reitveld’s Schroeder House; Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye; Saarinen’s TWA terminal; Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao; Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum; and Foster’s 30 St. Mary Axe, a.k.a. the "Gherkin." A few of the moving parts don't work completely right, but overall the book is an engaging way to explore not only modern architectural history, but also to get a feel for the dynamic shapes of today's architecture. Indeed with its moving parts and easily grasped visual concepts, the pop-up architecture book might be the most accessible way into the field for kids. Several more have been released recently. They include Frank Gehry in Pop-Up (Thunder Bay Press), Architectural Wonders: A Pop-Up Gallery of the World's Most Amazing Marvels (Thunder Bay),  Architecture Pop-Up Book (Universe), California Missions Pop-Up (Geomancy), and Frank Lloyd Wright in Pop-Up (Thunder Bay).

Safer Now?

Yesterday, New York City Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri released the official findings of a yearlong investigation into the March 15, 2008 crane collapse on East 51st Street that killed 7 people. Conducted by Arup, the investigation combined structural laboratory testing and computer analyses with the review of photographs and eyewitness testimony to produce a 339-page report [PDF] that placed blame firmly on poor rigging practices.

In brief, the report states that the jumping crew disregarded a number of the crane manufacturer’s recommendations in their use of polyester web slings to hoist and hold an 11,000-pound steel collar in place. They used four slings as opposed to eight, connected them not at the recommended collar points but in the crook of the tower’s legs, and did not pad them against the sharp edges of the steel. In addition, one of the slings had suffered previous damage, greatly reducing its bearing capacity. The slings broke, the collar fell from the 18th floor—severing lower connections to the building—and the crane toppled. In January, a grand jury indicted William Rapetti, the master rigger in charge of the jumping operation, on charges of manslaughter.

Arup’s investigation also found that the DOB crane inspection and permitting protocols in place at the time would not have identified the rigging errors that caused the collapse, highlighting the need for more vigilant construction oversight. “This investigation shows the consequences of taking shortcuts on the job site,” said Commissioner LiMandri. “In the coming days, we will convene a series of meetings with the construction industry to review the report’s findings and identify ways to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.”

The DOB has already taken several steps to tighten safety regulations at construction sites. Since the collapse, the department has worked with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn to enact 12 new laws to this effect. Among these are laws that mandate the presence of more safety managers on site, the drafting of specific safety procedures for jobs, an increased amount of training for rigging crews, and the restricted use of nylon or polyester slings unless specifically indicated by crane manufacturers. There is also a law that requires notification to New York State of disciplinary actions that DOB takes against licensed architects and engineers, so that the state can determine whether those disciplined need either remedial education or further disciplinary action.

Curiously, though, no law has been passed that addresses one other important factor that, while it did not cause the crane collapse, could very well have prevented it: the crane’s foundation. The base of the crane sat on dunnage beams, which in turn rested on concrete foundation walls. But the beams were only secured laterally by friction from the vertical load. According to the report, Dale Curtis, a member of the Crane Certification Association of America who was brought on as a reviewer, “observed that such a base frame is preferred to be positively restrained at the concrete below to prevent lateral movement during disassembly of the tower sections when only the lowest tie is attached to the completed building.”

During the collapse, only one tie remained attached to the building—the lowest, at the third floor. The base of the tower and the dunnage beams, however, suddenly exposed to the increased lateral loads, slid out from under the crane and allowed it to fall across 51st Street. As an industry insider who preferred to remain unnamed told AN in March 2008, “In this foundation there was no ability to withstand the lateral loads. When the ties failed it couldn’t handle it. There was no redundancy.”

DOB is aware of the issue, however. Among the 41 recommendations that resulted from the department’s recent $4 million dollar study of crane, hoist, excavation, and concrete operations was one that mentioned crane foundations. It recommended that the city require a New York State–licensed engineer to provide design drawings for a tower crane foundation and require notification to DOB prior to pouring the foundation. It also suggested requiring the engineer of record to conduct a special inspection of the tower crane foundation before and after the concrete is poured.

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Porter House: Hoboken Edition
Say "Hoboken" to a New Yorker and Irish Bars (and rowdy ex-frat boys), quaint row houses, and the Path Train might spring to mind. Thanks to the recently completed Garden Street Lofts (on sale now!), you can add high-end green condos designed by name brand architects to that list. Designed by SHoP, the project incorporates new construction into an old coconut processing plant, and is expected to receive LEED silver certification. Garden Street Lofts gets lots of merit badges: adaptive reuse, urban infill, green features, good design in Jersey, etc. But it also bears a striking resemblance to an earlier SHoP project, the Porter House, at 15th Street at Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. Hoboken! It's like the Meatpacking district, only farther west, and green, and with less expensive cocktails nearby. And the view from the green roof is better (at least until the High Line opens)!
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Fittings and Furniture

the children's place by clive wilkinson architects with western office interiors and vitra


Cascade Coil
9505 SW 90th Ct.,
Tualatin, OR;

Constantine Commercial
220 Montgomery St.,
San Francisco;

Edelman Leather
101 Henry Adams St.,
San Francisco;

564 Pacific Ave.,
San Francisco;

Shaw Floors
616 East Walnut Ave.,
Dalton, GA;


Geiger International
6095 Fulton Industrial Bvld., SW, Atlanta, GA;

900 12th St. Dr. NW,
Hickory, NC;

600 Townsend St.,
San Francisco;

214 Wilshire Blvd.,
Santa Monica, CA;

Moroso dba Unifor
146 Greene St.,
New York, NY;

Poltrona Frau
141 Wooster St.,
New York, NY;

Quinze & Milan
Walle 113, 8500 Kortrijk, Belgium;

28-30 Greene St.,
New York, NY;

Valley City Architectural Furniture
64 Hatt St., Dundas,
Ontario, Canada;

Vitra Los Angeles
8753 Washington Blvd.,
Culver City, CA;

Western Office Interiors
500 Citadel Dr.,
Los Angeles;


Lost and Found Etcetera
6314 Yucca St.,
Los Angeles;

Stefan Lawrence
8057 Beverly Blvd.,
Los Angeles;


55 Ferris St.,
Brooklyn, NY;

151 Vermont St.,
San Francisco;


Von Duprin
2720 Tobey Dr.,
Indianapolis, IN;


Boffi Los Angeles
1344 4th St.,
Santa Monica, CA;


5 Tudor City Pl.,
New York, NY;

Duravit Bathroom Furniture

John Boos + Co.
315 South 1st St.,
Effingham, IL;

6015 Power Inn Rd., 
Sacramento, CA;


9006 Beverly Blvd.,
West Hollywood, CA;


Boyd Lighting
944 Folsom St.,
San Francisco;

950 Bolger Ct.,
St. Louis, MO;


7200 Suter Rd.,
Coopersburg, PA;

5 Lumen Ln.,
Highland, NY;

Zumtobel Lighting
44 West 18th St.,
New York, NY;




Western Office Interiors and Vitra provided all of the workstations and most of the ancillary furniture for the Disney Store Headquarters in Pasadena. There was a huge amount of custom work and this team provided virtually every piece on time and with impeccable quality. We worked exclusively with Melanie Becker from Vitra and Dawn Nadeau of Western Office, who worked tirelessly to provide the highest level of product and support, and produced an excellent result.”
John Meachem
Clive Wilkinson Architects

Lost and Found Etcetera is a big decorators’ secret for enlivening modern interiors.”
Barbara Bestor
Bestor Architects

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Five Vie for Civil Rights
The design for Atlanta's new Center for Civil and Human Rights by Moody Nolan, Antoine Predock, and Goode Van Slyke
Courtesy Center for Civil and Human Rights

The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta has announced five architecture teams and possible designs for its new home. The finalist teams include: Diller Scofidio + Renfro of New York with Stanley Beaman & Sears of Atlanta; Freelon Group of Durham, NC with HOK of Atlanta; Huff + Gooden Architects of New York with Hammel Green and Abrahamson of Minneapolis; Moody•Nolan of Columbus, OH with Antoine Predock Architect of Albuquerque, NM and Goode Van Slyke of Atlanta; Polshek Partnership Architects of New York with Cooper Carry and Stanley Love-Stanley of Atlanta.

The center, organized in 2005 by Mayor Shirley Franklin, plans to open in 2012 on a 2.2 acre site on the edge of Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta. “We will be located next to two more entertainment oriented institutions, the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium, that generate a lot of foot traffic. We asked the teams to create a space that will help visitors transition to a more contemplative state,” executive director Douglas Shipman said.

After issuing a RFQ in November 2008, which garnered interest from dozens of firms, according to Shipman, the Center and its design jury narrowed the list down to twenty firms. They then asked the firms to submit a “design narrative” and complete team roster. “We didn’t want them to draw anything. We wanted them to demonstrate their way of working,” he said. That group was then narrowed down to the final five teams, who were then given a small design stipend as well as a detailed exhibition design program.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Stanley Beaman & Sears

The five teams have responded in strikingly different ways. Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Stanley Beaman & Sears created a layered design, with much of the exhibition space below grade and a thin cantilevered roof hanging over an outdoor garden. Freelon/HOK designed a pair of interlocking L-shaped volumes topped with green roofs. Huff + Gooden/Hammel Green and Abrahamson presented the most austere scheme, a low-slung horizontal volume with wide expanses of glass, which hangs over the sloping site supported by a massive truss. The Moody•Nolan/Predock/Goode Van Slyke engaged directly with the park-side setting with a building-as-landscape design and a glazed entrance carved out of the middle. The Polshek/Cooper Carry/Stanley-Love-Stanley design calls for a collection of glazed flat roofed wings with projection screens, accented by a tall, thin concrete entrance portal.

In addition judging the degree to which the designs fulfill the institution’s esthetic and programmatic goals, the jury will also consider the environmental sensitivity of the projects and the level of participation by women and minority owned firms. The jury of 13 including civil rights leader Juanita Abernathy, Chelsea Piers founder Tom Bernstein, filmmaker George C. Wolfe, and architects Alan Balfour, Deborah Berke, and Craig VanDevere—will make its recommendation to the Center’s board in late March. Ground is expected to be broken late this year.

Freelon Group with HOK 


Huff + Gooden Architects with Hammel Green and Abrahamson

Polshek Partnership Architects with Cooper Carry and Stanley Love-Stanley  
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Comment: Margery Perlmutter
Just as suffragettes marched in 1913, so the AIA takes its plea to Washington.
Courtesy Library of Congress

On February 4, eight hundred AIA chapter presidents, vice-presidents, executive directors, and board members from around the country descended on Washington, D.C., to urge their Congressional members and Senators to direct stimulus funding toward well-planned, sustainable construction and development, and not merely "shovel-ready" projects. Throughout the four-day "AIA Grassroots" event, the attendees were trained by professional lobbyists and political leaders about the importance of concerted and enduring lobbying efforts in effecting change, how a proposal moves from an idea to proposed legislation, and how one "makes the ask" of an elected official.

Most delegates of the AIA New York chapter arrived on Wednesday afternoon, in time to assemble in the subterranean conference center at the Grand Hyatt Hotel to hear the AIA National leadership detail advocacy positions that AIA members would take to Congress. In short, the positions were aimed at creating more work in the construction industry and, by extension, in the architecture industry, and on improving existing legislation affecting architects. In addition to encouraging Congress to approve funding for projects that would have a more enduring impact on the quality of life in our communities and provide longer-term opportunity for employment in the construction industry, the AIA platform also recommended an increase in the federal tax deduction already available to incentivize investment in energy-efficient commercial buildings, an increase in funding to public transportation planning initiatives, and the elimination of fee-retainage rules as applied to architects for federally-funded projects.

A host of motivational speakers offered pointers on what we should expect at our meetings with Congress. In particular, they explained that we were unlikely to meet with officials directly, as House Democrats had been called unexpectedly to attend an emergency “retreat,” presumably to discuss the stalled stimulus package. Instead, and perhaps to greater benefit, we would meet with the aides and chiefs-of-staff of the electeds, who were likely to be well-informed about the areas we would be discussing with them, would take copious notes, ask intelligent questions, make useful suggestions, and report all that they had learned from us to their Congressperson. We were especially cautioned not to be surprised to find that most of the people with whom we would speak, indeed, possibly the entire staff in the Congressperson’s office, would be eager, intellectually advanced, recent college grads.

Finally, we were educated on the method of “the ask”: on the importance of precisely articulating, after a short explanation and background, what specifically we were requesting that the Congressperson do (sponsor a bill, change a rule, make a revision to a bill already under consideration on the floor) and how such action would benefit the officials’ constituency. A few role-playing practice efforts by Grassroots attendees revealed plenty of work to be done before most of us would be convincing in “the ask” portion of our presentations.

Futurist David Zack encouraged us not to “think outside of the box,” which would leave us weary and alone, but to “get inside of someone else’s box” as a way of linking and communicating seemingly disparate and divergent ideas. Over the course of the event, we were scolded often about the profession's inability to convey its broad knowledge and understanding to anyone beyond the cognoscenti. To be effective advocates, we would have to sharpen new communication skills.

The New York chapter delegation, which included current chapter president Sherida Paulsen, Tony Schirripa, Rick Bell, Laura Manville, Margaret Castillo, Venesa Alicea, Mary Burke, Terrence O’Neal, Burt Roslyn, and myself, debated separately how our presentations to elected officials might be modified to appeal more specifically to each official’s particular interests and Congressional committee foci.

At breakfast on Thursday morning, speakers from the AIA Advocacy Federal Relations team (who knew they existed!) brought us up to date on the status of the construction-spending aspects of the stimulus package that had been debated on the Senate floor the night before. Occasionally, “calls to action” were announced, advising AIA advocates to call and send emails to their Senators urging them to ensure that construction-related funding remained

in the package. News was out that green initiatives and education spending, in particular, were at risk and it was our job to do something about it. Throughout that day and the days that followed, similar announcements were made.

After breakfast, nearly eight hundred of us headed to the Capitol to begin the day’s pre-scheduled appointments with our regional representatives. Passing other AIA delegations with similar missions along the corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building, the New York Chapter’s 12 delegates assembled for their first meeting at Representative Nydia Velazquez’s office. Velazquez, Democrat from New York’s 12th Congressional District (Lower Manhattan, portions of Brooklyn and Queens) is chair of the House Small Business Committee and senior member of the Financial Services Committee, which concerns itself with housing and community development. Our presentation to Velazquez’s extremely able and attentive aide covered as many points as possible, with nearly everyone contributing a few words to reinforce our message and responding to her many questions: Construction of well-planned, well-considered projects will create jobs over the long term for more New Yorkers and more small business owners; funding should be directed toward affordable housing development, school construction, and sustainable development; tax incentives should be increased significantly to encourage owners to retrofit existing office buildings to meet sustainability standards; existing AmeriCorps programs should be expanded to include a DesignCorps to employ architects and engineers to assess and plan the retrofitting of federal buildings. Since small business development and affordable housing are of particular interest in Velazquez's district, most of our points resonated with her aide. She encouraged us to invite Velazquez to upcoming events at the Center for Architecture (located only a few blocks outside of her district).

When we spoke with the aides to Anthony Weiner (Democrat from the 9th District, parts of Queens and Brooklyn; health and the environment) and Eliot Engel (Democrat from the 17th District, Bronx and parts of Westchester; particularly interested in energy issues), we delivered similar messages, though admittedly found ourselves losing steam toward the end of the day. Our discussions about the DesignCorps were of particular interest to Weiner’s and Engel’s aides, and both asked us to provide them with more detailed information on the program.

We were extremely fortunate, however, to meet with Representative Carolyn Maloney herself (Democrat from the 14th District, East Side Manhattan and Queens; chair, Joint Economic Committee). Despite a flustered start as a result of this unexpected audience, our delegation focused its message on its belief that our proposed initiatives would create the greatest number of jobs, not just in New York, but throughout the country. Maloney was sympathetic and already well-acquainted with the number of construction-related jobs that have been and will be produced by the Second Avenue subway and the East Side Access “mega-projects.” She encouraged us to provide her with more specific data on the DesignCorps, sustainable retrofit incentives, and federal retainer issues.

At the end of this long day at beginners’ advocacy, we dispersed for tours of the Capitol and to take in some new architecture, including Polshek Partnership’s Newseum and the new Capitol Visitor’s Center (RTKL and Ralph Appelbaum). Although the stimulus bill that Congress eventually approved did not fund the scope of construction projects we had rallied for, we remain charged by that day in February when the architects stormed the Capitol, and ever-hopeful that our continued efforts will make a difference.

Recession Tales: Harry Cobb
With this conversation at his home office on January 31 with Harry Cobb, a founder of Pei Cobb Freed, AN  launches a series of interviews with architects from different generations talking about their own day-to-day career experiences with downturns in the past. Cobb, now 82, was born during the Great Depression. He based his decision to become an architect on a trip abroad for which his mother managed to save by entering the real estate market. The Architect’s Newspaper: What was the economic situation when you first started working as an architect? Harry Cobb: I graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design 60 years ago and immediately went to work. It was 1948 and I have worked ever since, but I can’t say I know much about downturns and I don’t think my experience is atypical for an architect. According to Wikipedia, there have been eight recessions in the years I’ve been in practice—the first one was 1953–54—and those recessions have occupied 12 of those 60 years. But if you ask me what I remember about them, I’d say not much, because they simply didn’t register in my recollections by comparison with what I would call the vicissitudes, the highs and lows, of practice, which in my case have not even been related to recessions. When, if ever, did you become aware of the boom-bust cycle in building? In the early years, our work was driven by our relationship with William Zeckendorf, Sr. He was an imaginative, energetic, and ambitious developer, and I.M. Pei, Jim Freed, and I worked for him as in-house architects for about ten years. (I.M. had been a critic at the GSD when I was a student.) Zeckendorf was an extraordinarily ambitious entrepreneur and risk-taker. He ultimately went bankrupt, but that was after we had already branched off and established an independent practice. The only period I can recall that the profile of our practice was driven by a downturn was in the 1973–74 recession. It was a big one, and the first to last more than a year. That was the recession that took our firm to Iran. We were active there for four to five years until the revolution, and fortunately, we weren’t working for the government but for private developers. We were also busy because I.M. was in the middle of the East Building for the National Gallery of Art in D.C., which was a very high-profile project. But you can’t sustain a practice on one project, no matter how high-profile. We considered ourselves fortunate when we were approached by those developers from Iran. But interestingly, what I remember most about Iran is not so much about the projects—none of them got built—but about going to Isfahan and Persepolis to see the splendid buildings. In any case, Pei and Freed were more involved with those jobs, and I was just stopping over on my way to a major mixed-use project I was working on in Melbourne, Australia, called Collins Place, which was well underway. But don’t attach too much importance to Iran, it just happened to be where we turned when things dried up here. Did that first experience condition you somehow to try to prepare for the next one? If you’re asking if we felt at risk, I would have to say architects are always at risk. I’ve never known a time since I came to New York when I did not feel we were at risk. I don’t think you can enter into architecture if you don’t have a tolerance for risk, especially if what you are interested in is the art of architecture, not the business. How do you cope? After a while, you realize the sky isn’t really falling and you just live with it. Every practice inevitably has periods of great financial risk—and these may not have to do with recessions. I associate risk instead with projects that were poorly managed, and led us to lose a lot of money—although they might be the same ones that launched our reputation. Sometimes I feel our practice has raised bad management to an art form! What are the events that have shaped your experience? This recession is by far the worst since the Great Depression and is undoubtedly going to register. But the other eight I could not describe as very significant events in my life. The significant events—both for good and bad—related more to what was going on in the practice. No recession could possibly leave a mark on one’s psyche as deep as the problems encountered with the John Hancock Tower [in Boston], or when we spent six years doing a complete overhaul of Kennedy Airport and on the day we finished 900 drawings, the project was canceled. And it was not because of a downturn but because of politics. Those disappointments are much more vivid in my mind. How did the Hancock catastrophe, as you called it, impact your firm? A few years after that episode we were in a sense blacklisted by developers and corporations. We were aware our practice was badly hurt—it was on the front page around the world with these horrible pictures of plywood on the windows. We were considered not safe and that came closer than anything to jeopardizing our existence. But after four or five years, there was a kind of reversal when people said: If those guys are still around, they must be doing something right because they should be dead right now. And we retained the confidence of our clients through the whole episode. In a sense that is the most important achievement of my life—getting that building finished in a way that was not compromised. Did you develop strategies along the way for recovering from setbacks? We’ve never had a strategy, no one has ever gone out on the road to promote work, we’ve just responded to opportunities. We spend a lot of time, of course, in the process of getting work through interviews and, increasingly, through competitions. We’re involved in three major ones right now. We have been fortunate: I wouldn’t call it luck, and you just can’t tell what’s going to come in over the transom. The main thing we’ve always known—you might call it a hedge—is pursuing diversity, both geographically and in types of work. That has always helped to protect us against the collapse of any one sector. How do you feel about this time around? Like all architects, we’re apprehensive, but not in a panic. Partly it’s just a matter of experience. If you live in a profession as long as I have and you are always at risk, you get accustomed to living at the edge of disasters. Someone once told me, or maybe I said it myself: Who speaks of success? Survival is all. And I completely believe that.
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Built for the People of the United States
The Triborough Bridge was built in 1936 with $44.2 million from the Public Works Administration.
Jet Lowe/Courtesy Library of Congress

In 1931, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat in on a roundtable conversation with the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, RPAA members including Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye, and Clarence Stein presented the future president with a powerful argument that fallout from the economic collapse of 1929 might be best attacked by following a “new road” of regional planning at a national scale. The governor seemed sympathetic to their ideas, and helped MacKaye launch his ambitious plans for the Appalachian Trail, which began in New York State.

Two years later, when FDR began the historic 100 days of legislation that kicked off the New Deal, the RPAA’s lobbying seemed to have paid off. Roosevelt placed MacKaye in a planning position with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and selected Stein’s partner, Robert Kohn, as the first head of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA). But while the RPAA’s progressive goals were embodied in these programs, as the New Deal wore on, its idealism and the scale of its ambition became muddled through political compromises.


The Greenbelt Town program, which was supposed to change the face of America with a series of highly rational garden cities, was whittled down to three small projects. And the TVA’s initial steps toward creating a “dynamic regional and interregional economy” were soon shed by its director, Arthur Morgan, who steered the authority toward becoming merely a source of electricity for the industrializing south. This tension—between those with plans to use government action and money to transform the country and those who prefer a more laissez-faire approach focused purely on temporary job creation—is very much alive today as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) works its way through Congress. Like today’s stimulus package, the New Deal started as a jobs-creation program, but it gave rise to profound changes in the landscape and culture that were a natural outgrowth of the era’s newfound belief in the federal government’s ability to play a transformational role. As we debate what many call “the New New Deal,” the lessons of the 1930s remind us that a focus on job creation need not preclude a commitment to the broader progressive agenda that made the New Deal so far-reaching.

The New Deal’s largest and best-known agency, the one that became synonymous with the entire program, was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Enacted in 1935, it received more money and attention than any other of the Roosevelt administration’s initiatives. By 1941, the WPA had spent approximately $11.4 billion ($169 billion in today’s money). Of this massive investment, $4 billion went to highway and street projects; $1 billion to public buildings; $1 billion to publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion that funded initiatives as varied as school lunch programs, the famous Federal Writers Project, and sent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans out to document the American landscape. By the time it was disbanded by Congress in 1943 as a result of the manufacturing boom created by World War II, the WPA had provided some eight million jobs and had left its mark on nearly every community in America by way of a park, bridge, housing project, or municipal building.

in 1935, the Public works administration allocated $5 million for the original brooklyn college campus.
courtesy brooklyn college

The magnitude of the change created by the WPA’s modernization program was unprecedented among direct federal interventions, and the current recovery bill has the potential to be as, or more, effective. At this writing, ARRA promises $825 billion in economic stimulus, $275 billion of which is tax cuts and $550 billion of which is actual investment. Much of this $550 billion will go to construction projects to bring America’s flagging schools, health care facilities, and infrastructure up to standard and beyond. A recent analysis of the bill from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the following run-down on infrastructure spending: $30 billion for highways, $9 billion for transit, $1.1 billion for Amtrak, $10 billion for science facilities, $3 billion for airports. The list goes on, including appropriations for clean water and restoration of brownfields, but also money for other architecture-related building work: $16 billion for school modernization, $9 billion for Department of Defense projects like VA hospitals and child care centers, and $2.25 billion for rehabilitating public housing.

While the rough balance of funds in the current bill and the WPA evinces a kinship, they will be disbursed in a very different fashion. Harry Hopkins, FDR’s handpicked director of the WPA, worked directly with the states to evaluate and select projects. Other agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), also had their own directors, their own budgets, and the power to choose how best to spend them. The money in the current stimulus package will be apportioned to the states not through newly created agencies based in D.C.— as was the case in the 1930s—but by existing formulas. These formulas evaluate the needs of various localities by calculating factors that range from demographics, to income levels, to official reports on structures and efficiencies. The formulas have the benefit of distributing funds by objective measures rather than political ones, as goes one criticism of the WPA. However, these measures change little from year to year, and a formula-based system has done little to address infrastructure failings at a regional or even national scale.

the 1940 segment of manhattan's east river drive, sketched by hugh ferriss, received a pwa grant for $4.8 million.
from east river drive (federal works agency. 1940)

What has not changed between now and then is the imperative to choose projects that are ready to start construction immediately. What we might call “shovel-ready” projects were a big part of the WPA agenda, and there were a number of regional plans in place, notably those developed by Robert Moses in New York, that captured an enormous share of federal funds. By 1936, New York City was receiving one seventh of the WPA allotment for the entire country, employed 240,000 people with this money, and was considered “the 49th state” within the WPA. Meanwhile other municipalities floundered in their attempts to draw up plans, and the WPA canceled more than 100 major grants to 11 northeast cities because the blueprints for those projects were not ready. Today’s analog is the “Use it or Lose it” provision in the bill that demands the return of funds if they are not put to work within 120 days. Because of this urgency, many are wary that we will spend $100 billion filling potholes.

There are a few significant projects in New York that promise to make a real difference to the region. One is Access to the Region’s Core, or the ARC tunnel, which will improve transportation between New Jersey and Manhattan. East Side Access, a project that will do the same thing for commuters coming from Long Island, is already under construction, but in dire need of funds. The same can be said for the MTA’s 2nd Avenue Subway project. And then there’s the Fulton Street Transit Center, which promised to become a central element of downtown’s redevelopment before the MTA’s own parlous financial situation put it in jeopardy. These projects, which stand to receive substantial stimulus funding, will undoubtedly improve transportation in the New York region and lay the groundwork for increased demand in the future. But what about transportation between New York and Boston, or New York and Chicago? What about developing a framework for wind power in the tri-state area? What about a comprehensive plan for regional watershed management?

the new deal's heroic ambition is exemplified by the tennessee valley authority's norris dam, completed in 1936.

There is no agency to think about the changing infrastructure needs of the country as a whole. In 2007, a bill was put forth to do just this: The Infrastructure Investment Bank Act would have established a national institution to evaluate project proposals and assemble investment portfolios to pay for them, much like the World Bank does on a global level. The fact that it did not pass Congress speaks to a reluctance in the U.S. to put planning power in the hands of the federal government—the same reluctance that the RPAA came up against in the 1930s.

One of Roosevelt’s first acts of the New Deal, an act some say he first mentioned at that RPAA roundtable meeting in Virginia, was the creation of the TVA. This ambitious project targeted the poorest part of the country, the one hardest hit by the Depression, and took it upon itself to modernize and reinvigorate it. Through a comprehensive regimen of education and infrastructure building—including the construction of 29 hydroelectric dams and even the building of one town—the TVA turned this rural backwater into the nation’s biggest producer of electricity, and one of the backbones of mobilization during WWII. Though it faced determined opposition, and proposals to implement similar regional plans were shot down across the country, the TVA stands as a high water mark.

After the Interstate Highways Act of 1956, the federal government covered 90 percent of costs for road construction, like the 1963 Alexander Hamilton Bridge.
Jack Boucher/COurtesy Library of Congress

The only time in American history that the federal government has been able to enact a national plan was through the Federal Highway Act of 1956, a project whose skeleton was drafted by the NRA during the Depression. While many today dispute the merit of this program, it is instructive to note that the only way Eisenhower was able to sell the highway act to the country was by declaring it vital to national security.

Today we face not nuclear Armageddon but a danger that could, in the long run, prove all the more crippling: our national infrastructure on the brink of collapse. It seems time to draft our own “new road,” one designed not just to pull us out of economic crisis, but also to lay the groundwork that will carry us undiminished into the future.

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CCTV Hotel Ablaze (UPDATE)
Images and reports are spiraling out across the Web of a fire taking hold at the hotel adjacent OMA's CCTV Tower. (Building calls it the TVCC tower.) Details, at least in English, remain slim, but a translation of Chinese reports suggest the fire broke out at 9:21 p.m. local time, or just after eight o'clock this morning in New York. A call to OMA's New York office did confirm that the fire was in their building, which is still under construction, though all further inquiries were directed to the Rotterdam HQ. According to the translated reports, the site is swarmed with fire trucks and emergency responders who are struggling to keep the blaze at bay due to a shortage of water. The Times is reporting that Beijing had been full of fireworks throughout the night as part of lunar New Year celebrations, suggesting a probable cause for a fire that, the Times says, took all of 20 minutes to race from the ground floor to the top of the building. No official word anywhere yet as to the cause of the fire, if anyone was in the building, or if there have been any casualties. The BBC has some video of what can truly be described as an inferno (via Archinect). When we saw the fire, two things immediately came to minde: the tragic fire in August 2007 at 130 Liberty Street (could smoking construction workers be to blame?), as well as the demise of another Dutch master's work, Ben van Berkel's Villa NM, which burned down last year in a mysterious fire. We'll keep you updated as we learn more. Hopefully China correspondent Andrew Yang, who kept stumbling upon the CCTV tower and building paranoia over the last year, can shed some light. UPDATE: So far, only a rote release from OMA HQ, though they are presumably flooded right now, and probably as confused as the rest of us:
The Office for Metropolitan Architecture has learned that there has been a serious fire at the Television Cultural Centre (TVCC), the building adjacent to the headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV). The TVCC building was due to open in mid-May and contained a hotel, a theatre, and several studios. As we learn more about this tragedy, we will advise the public further.
In a podcast on the Times's website, reporter Andrew Jacobs essentially ruled out the fireworks thesis he initially posited on the paper's website, as well as surmising that the building was almost certainly damaged beyond repair. He also said the fire was creating quite a psychic stir in the city:
I think it’s very symbolic for Beijingers as an architectural pair. And then the other kind of layer that is the fact that it’s happened on the last day of the New Year. The fire’s still burning, and it’s just about midnight here, so ringing in the new year with this kind of disaster is very inauspicious, at least in the view of many Chinese. A lot of people in the crowd couldn’t help note that and this was just not a good omen for the new year.
He also questioned the Beijing fire department's ability to fight high-rise fires, though as we've noted above, that is even a difficult proposition here in New York. The Times is also reporting now that the fire is believed to have started around 8:30 p.m. local time, though possibly as early as 7:45 p.m. Bloomberg is reporting a representative for Mandarin Oriental--the operator of the 241-room, 522-foot tall hotel--saying that no one was injured. The AP quotes a gloomy OMAer at the site:
Erik Amir a senior architect at building designers OMA said the fire had destroyed years of hard work. "It really has been a rough 6-7 years for architects who worked on this project," said Amir, who rushed to the site after hearing of the fire. "I think it's really sad that this building is destroyed before it can be opened to the public," he said.
UPDATE 2: AN contributer Aric Chen reports. UPDATE 3: Little new news thus far, though people continue to push the fireworks allegations, including the Washington Post. Its report does include a good deal of news from the state news agency,, including that there are still no confirmed casualties, though seven firefighters have been hospitalized. The Post also reports that while fireworks are normally illegal in downtown Beijing, a reprieve was given for this year's New Years celebrations, though no explanation is given as to why this year was any different than those in the past. The Post also carried this rather poetic firsthand account:
"The building was like an oven, red inside," said Hu Jing, a 26-year-old paralegal who works in a building opposite the CCTV tower and noticed it burning just after 8:30. "In less than twenty minutes, the fire had engulfed half the building. Within half an hour, all of it was on fire. I thought, there goes billions of dollars, just burning."
Jeff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG airs an idea we'd been thinking of for much of the day, as well, that this was the rather literal pop of the construction bubble that has patronized architects, for better or worse, over the past few years:
Amongst many, many signs that the building boom has come to an end, from gridlocks of cars abandoned at the Dubai airport by fleeing workers to massive holes in the urban surface of Chicago, to entire architectural firms going out of business, to delayed towers and theme parks on pause, none seem quite as explicitly apocalyptic as the sight of OMA's CCTV complex – that is, the part of it known as TVCC, containing a luxury hotel – roaring with flames.
We still think it was the crane accidents last year that signalled the end, but this certainly comes in a close second. And LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne makes two interesting points on the paper's arts blog:
The architectural composition of the complex as a whole -- which I toured with Scheeren over the summer, and which I argued in a year-end piece "already ranks as the most significant piece of architecture of our young century" -- depends on the shorter hotel tower, which is known as TVCC. It is the hotel, in fact, that helps give the main tower its strange, shifting sense of scale. From certain angles the smaller section -- no shrimp itself at 34 stories tall -- looks like the tail of the big tower's dragon, from others like a fleeing creature about to be devoured by the CCTV's gaping mouth. [...] Potent symbolism aside, though, I'd be very surprised if the hotel weren't instantly rebuilt. The Chinese leadership has understood the graphic power of the CCTV complex -- the way it suggests a modern, ambitious and innovative new China -- from the earliest stages, and it seems highly unlikely it would allow the charred remains of the hotel to stand for any extended period. This is particularly true given Chinese sensitivity around the idea that its economy is rapidly losing steam. So there's likely to be no drawn-out, painstaking investigation of the wreckage by some Chinese version of the FBI or ATF. As soon as the last ember is out, I'd guess, the bulldozers will be clearing the site to begin again. Even in a global slowdown -- perhaps especially in one -- construction in China can operate at lightning speed.
UPDATE 4: Agence France Presse is reporting that one of the seven injured firefighters died in the hospital tonight: "Zhang Jianyong died early on Tuesday morning at a hospital in Beijing from toxic gases he inhaled while fighting the fire, Xinhua said, citing the city's fire control authorities." The Chinese authorities are now also suggesting fireworks, and not workers, may be to blame for the fire:
The official news agency quoted a city government spokesman as saying initial reports indicated firecrackers set off to celebrate the Lunar New Year, China's most important annual festival, has caused the fire. Firefighters found remnants of firecrackers on the roof of the burning building, Xinhua said. The agency had earlier quoted a witness saying the blaze appeared to have been sparked after fireworks landed on top of the hotel building.
According to the AP, the fire was put out "early Tuesday morning. And with the sad and happy news that the fire has been extinguished, it is hopefully time to build again. I can't help but think about a conversation I had earlier today with Alan. I asked if this was really as big of news as it seemed, or if we were simply particularly attuned to it because some big-name architect was involved. Would this still be making all the front pages were it just some regular old building, one in which almost no one was hurt? Of course not, Alan replied. Just look at The Huffington Post, he said, where the headline screams, "Rem Koolhaas Tower In Beijing Goes Up In Flames." Design hasn't been so notable since Philip Johnson was on the cover of Time. Just look at some of the 225 (225!) comments on HuffPo:
  • This is terrible for the people injured and Rem Koolhaas who is the consummate professional architect.
  • Holy balls that looks insane.
  • Notice how it did not collapse like WTC #7 which was the same size. Thats because it was brought down with demolitions. On BBC and CNN they said it had collapsed but it was still standing and not 'pulled' yet. More proof 9-11 was an inside job and that demolitions had been set up in the towers for weeks. Unbelievable the media establishment is afraid to tackle this...or is it?
  • this must be a testament to the extremely high building standards they have in china, just like the high standards they maintain for food, drugs, manufacturing, environmental and agriculture.and to think that's where some are planning to send the last american manufacturing jobs while the 'brainier' jobs go to india.
Okay. So half the comments were about the fire itself, and the other half were 7 WTC related, or jokes about Chinese construction standards. Still, whether it is a product of the building boom or some other design phenomenon, there is no denying that architecture has indeed entered--and hopefully not exited--a golden age, where the work of Gehry and Nouvel and Herzog & de Meuron are celebrated worldwide. An age where good architecture by-and-large triumphs over the bland and banal. An age where people look up. Far from being a symbolic end, look to this as a new begining, a time for more reasonable, even-handed, well-meaning buildings. Not to say this and others weren't. On the contrary. It's just that, in these harder times, we can only hope the cream will continue to rise, from the ashes, with the phoenix, etc, etc. And that, somewhere, Rem Koolhaas is, if not smiling, at least smirking. Keep fighting the good fight. UPDATE 5: Perhaps we've spoken too hopefully too soon. Our man in China Andrew Yang sends along a portentous message:
It was really gut-wrenching to see TVCC burn like that, itself like a firecracker. I woke up to read that one firefighter was killed in the blaze and several others injured. The Chinese media are so far not even reporting it. According to, a notice was sent to all major organizations by the government to stop reporting the fire last night. As to the cause, a lot of people are speculating that it was caused by fireworks. There are three major firework nights during the Chinese New Year--one on the eve of Chinese New Year, one five days in, and the third was just last night, on the first full moon of the cycle. During the festival, people can buy July 4th-grade fireworks all over China, and fire them off, literally next to buildings, on roads, on sidewalks--they light them up just about anywhere. Of course the cause of the fire is still not known, and may not ever ascertained, since this matter is something that the Chinese government is going to be controlling very closely.
UPDATE 6: Day Two round-up, including an apology from CCTV, whose fireworks celebration--rather ironically celebrating the new buildings--caused the fire; reports of a local media blackout on the issue; and some critical takes on the fire.