Posts tagged with "vernacular architecture":

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Zillow slams popular architecture blog for using its photos of terrible houses

Update 6/29/17: McMansion Hell is out of legal hot water. Read the latest here. Update 6/27 /17: This post has been updated with comment from Zillow. A popular blog that skewers McMansions has temporarily shut down after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the real estate site Zillow. Kate Wagner started her blog, McMansion Hell, as a way to reveal (and revel in) the contradictions of America's aspirational domestic vernacular architecture post-1980. Specifically, she focuses on homes whose vast floor plans display luxury more than halfway down the road to ungainly excess: A typical post may feature fake columns sprouting around turrets and picture windows that shelter vast marble kitchen islands, double-sized foyers, and Trumpian glass chandeliers. A graduate student in acoustics at Johns Hopkins, Wagner taught herself about architecture, often using images from real estate sites to show readers how we got from this to this. Her aversion to jargon and embrace of image-based critique has earned McMansion Hell fans in and outside the architecture world. It's also apparently caught the eye of Zillow's legal department. Yesterday, Wagner posted a letter she received from the Zillow team on Twitter: The letter states that, by re-blogging photos with commentary, Wagner has violated Zillow's terms of use and infringed on the rights of the copyright holders of the images. It warns her to stop using images from Zillow and gives her until Thursday to delete all offending images from her site. In response to the missive, Wagner issued a statement, below, on the potential impact of shuttering McMansion Hell (right now, it's not dead; the domain is offline as Wagner archives content). She is currently seeking legal council. A representative from Zillow, Emily Heffter, clarified the company's intent in response to a query from The Architect's Newspaper. The email contained a message from Katie Curnutte, the company's vice president of communications and public affairs, to Wagner that explained Zillow's beef with the images:
[We] do not own the rights to many of the photos on our site, and therefore can’t give permission for third parties, such as yourself, to take the photos from our website for any purpose. We get them from brokerages and MLSs who are advertising homes for sale and through those agreements we have an obligation to protect the interest of the copyright holders who license the images to Zillow.
In a revelation that should delight fans of the blog, Curnutte emphasized that "we do not want you to take down your blog." Today on Twitter, Wagner said that a new post, using images in the public domain, will be up this Saturday.
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Georgia’s famous Big Chicken slated for major revamp

A Georgia KFC franchise has announced that its beloved "Big Chicken" restaurant is slated for a $2 million renovation. Don't worry, though—plans call for keeping the famous bird. The Marietta, Georgia KFC branch, owned by KBP Foods, is known locally as Big Chicken for its majestic architecture parlante, a 56-foot-tall stylized steel chicken whose ruddy plumage and bright animated beak seduce would-be diners from its perch at a busy crossroads. Designed by Georgia Tech architecture student Hubert Puckett and built in 1963, the sign was reconstructed following storm damage in 1993. The video below (best viewed with the sound on) really captures the essence of the bird: Renderings revealed in the Atlanta Business Chronicle depict an on-brand interior renovation for the 4,700-square-foot space, plus a gift shop. Big Chicken's logo will be updated, as well. “Marietta’s Big Chicken is a local landmark that we are proud to preserve,” said KFC franchisee Mike Kulp, president and CEO of KBP Foods, in a statement. “Once completed, our new restaurant will be among the greatest KFCs in the world with design and guest experience features you won’t be able to find anywhere else in the U.S. We can’t wait to bring these designs to life for the community of Marietta and all those who stop along their travels to see this historic landmark.”

The restaurant will be closed for around three months, beginning this week.

KFC's plans align with Taco Bell's 2015 decision to save Taco Bell "numero uno," the chain's very first restaurant. Taco Bell collaborated with a local preservation group to move the 1953 building from Downey, California to the company's headquarters in Irvine.

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Architecture meetings in North Carolina test reaction to state’s anti-LGBT legislation

After this spring’s conferences on high-minded architecture, from NYCxDESIGN to the AIA Convention to the Venice Bienniale, how about some design with a lower case ‘d’? That’s what’s on the agenda for more than 200 registrants of the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF), a conference now underway in Durham, North Carolina. The four day meeting is entitled “From Farm to Factory: Piedmont Stories in Black and White.” Participants will gather at the Durham Marriott to hear talks about topics such as “Documenting Historic Graffiti,” “The Transformation of Working Class Housing and Domesticity,” and “The Community Center and the Barber Shop.” They’ll fan out into the surrounding area to tour tobacco farms, textile mills,  churches, barns, slave quarters and a Quaker village or two. Many of the tour sites are related to slavery or tobacco or both. In addition to a Thursday evening pig-pickin’, the menu will include North Carolina barbecue, country ham biscuits, chicken pastry, collards, hushpuppies, banana pudding and sweet tea. In many ways it’s the opposite of meetings such as the AIA convention, which aim to celebrate the “best” of American design, with honors such as the 25 Year Award for buildings that have stood the test of time and the AIA Gold Medal. The Vernacular Architecture Forum, by definition, seeks to focus on the ordinary parts of the American landscape, including many buildings and places that weren’t designed by licensed architects or landscape architects at all. “The Vernacular Architecture Forum is the premier organization in North America dedicated to the appreciation and study of ordinary buildings and landscapes,” the group says on its website. “Established in 1979, VAF is composed of scholars from many fields, including history, architectural history, geography, anthropology, sociology, landscape history, historic preservation, and material culture studies.” During the past few decades, “interest in ordinary architecture has grown rapidly and in diverse directions,” the group states. “Scholars and field professionals apply the term ‘vernacular architecture’ to a range of structures including traditional domestic and agricultural buildings, industrial and commercial structures, twentieth-century suburban houses, settlement patterns and cultural landscapes. The Vernacular Architecture Forum was formed...to encourage the study and preservation of these informative and valuable material resources.” Each year the organization chooses one city or region to explore during its annual meeting, which draws designers, historians, archaeologists, folklorists, geographers, museum curators, preservationists, educators and students from all over the country. This year there’s a twist that makes the event a little less ordinary, and it involves the setting. The Vernacular Architecture Forum is one of first national groups to hold a meeting in Durham since North Carolina legislators passed House Bill 2, dubbed the “bathroom bill.” The statewide legislation has drawn widespread criticism because it took away certain rights and protections that had been extended to the LGBT community in North Carolina, including allowing transgender people to use the public bathroom of the sex with which they identify. Performers such as Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam, and Cirque du Soleil have cancelled shows in North Carolina as a result of the new law, and companies such as Pay Pal and Deutsche Bank have cancelled plans to expand in the state. Mayors of other cities, including New York City and Baltimore, have blocked funding for non essential government employee travel to North Carolina in response to the law. The Vernacular Architecture Forum is one of two design-related conferences that had been scheduled to take place in North Carolina before the legislation was passed and whose leaders decided to proceed with their meetings in the state. The other meeting was the High Point Market of furniture and home goods, which was held in April. According to organizers of the VAF meeting, the legislation was adopted so soon before the conference that there was no time to switch to another location, as some groups have done. For example, the Community Transportation Association of America backed out of a meeting that would have drawn 1,000 people to Raleigh, but its meeting wasn’t scheduled to take place until 2018. According to David Bergstone, director of architecture for Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem and a member of the planning committee for the Durham event, the VAF selects the location for its annual meetings two to three years in advance and uses the time to plan tours and programs related to that part of the country, so it can offer a site-specific event that takes full advantage of the resources available nearby. In North Carolina, he said, the group has lined up tours of plantation housing for blacks and whites; farms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; turn-of-the-20th-century textile and tobacco factories; churches built by Germans, Scotch-Irish, and African Americans; and the former workplace of a gifted African-American furniture craftsman who lived near the North Carolina-Virginia border. “There was no way to move something like this that has been planned over the past two to three years,” Bergstone said. “It wasn’t possible at the last minute.” Bergstone said the group had several last minute cancellations, but they were due to illness or other personal reasons. He said he wasn’t aware of any cancellations by people protesting House Bill 2, but he acknowledged that there could have been some people who decided not to register because of House Bill 2 and just didn’t tell the VAF. Marvin Brown, a senior architectural historian with AECOM and one of the two co-organizers of the Durham meeting, also said he wasn’t aware of any cancellations related to the bill. “I can’t think of anyone who specifically said they couldn’t come because of it,” he said. In all, Bergstone said, 220 to 230 people are registered to attend all or part of the four-day meeting. The gatherings typically draw between 100 and 300 people, so the registration figure is in line with past years, he said. “I think we’ve hit our target.” A city government employee in New York said he considered going but decided not to register after he learned that his employer wouldn’t help pay for his trip because of House Bill 2. The New York City employee said several of his colleagues did go to Durham and ended up paying their own way, while another colleague decided not to go because of House Bill 2. Bergstone and Brown said the situation is unfortunate for Durham because its elected representatives don’t support the legislation, yet they have to live with the consequences. Before the meeting, VAF President Gretchen Buggeln, wrote members to notify them that the VAF was going ahead with the event in Durham and providing information on how they could object to the legislation if they cared to do so. “As many VAF members know, on March 23, 2016, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed into law legislation known as House Bill 2 (HB2),” Buggeln wrote to members. “The leadership and members of the Vernacular Architecture Forum are troubled by this discriminatory bill. This law overrides local LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances and bans transgender people from using certain restrooms. “HB2 is highly controversial within the state of North Carolina and many citizens are fighting the law. The ACLU of North Carolina has filed a federal lawsuit and the state attorney general is a vocal opponent. Moreover, the city council of Durham, the site of our June 2016 conference, unanimously condemned the legislation...[Durham City Councilman Steve] Schewel recommends that those wanting to support the opposition to HB2, and the fight for its repeal, can contribute to Equality North Carolina,” Buggeln continued in her message. “They do great organizing work statewide. “[Event organizers] Claudia Brown, Marvin Brown, and their team have worked long and hard to prepare a marvelous conference for us. I urge you all to come to Durham and to spread the VAF’s message of concern and care for communities—their buildings, landscapes, but most especially their people—and our vision of equality, dignity, and justice for all.” North Carolina officials have disclosed that the state has lost conventions, conferences and concerts with an estimated economic impact of more than $10 million, since the bill was signed.  Most of the bookings have been in larger cities such as Raleigh. Many of the cancelled meetings weren’t scheduled to take place until 2017 or later, so groups had time to find another location. Last week, the Associated Press reported that attendance was down slightly for North Carolina’s High Point Market, a meeting that was seen as an early test of business reaction to the law. “According to numbers released Friday [May 27] by the High Point Market, this year's registered attendees—including buyers, exhibitors, media and students—totaled slightly more than 79,000,” the AP reported. “That represents a decrease of 1,000 from the previous year, and a reversal for the market. Attendance at last year's spring event rose 2.5 percent from 2014.” Held twice a year, the High Point Market brings an estimated $5 billion a year in economic activity to North Carolina. According to the AP, the High Point event in April represented the largest business-related gathering in North Carolina since House Bill 2 was adopted.
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A new book delves into the unique personality and prolific work of artist J. B. Jackson

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, perhaps the father of American landscape studies, was an autodidact whose unique perspective on the world was shaped by travels through Europe, several short stints at elite schools, military service during World War II, and, ultimately, ranching in the Southwest. Jackson initially spread his ideas through the periodical Landscape, which he self-published (and, as it was later discovered, wrote all the early articles under pseudonyms) from 1951 through 1968. As his acclaim grew, he turned the reins of the magazine over to trusted colleagues and split time between the east and west coasts, teaching at Harvard and UC Berkeley. Through these venues, Jackson forcefully argued for an understanding of the American landscape that incorporated both the natural and the human, the architectural and the everyday. While they are now truisms—that the landscape includes human-made forms like roads and buildings or that banal signage and vernacular architecture provide insight into contemporary culture—these were revolutionary ideas when Jackson forced his way into the discourse of cultural studies. Indeed, it was Jackson’s influence, directly or indirectly, that gave way to everything from Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas, to Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects, to Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, to John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski’s Everyday Urbanism.

Recently published is Drawn to Landscape, an edited volume that revisits Jackson’s life and work. While the book will certainly give readers a sense of Jackson’s intellectual importance, it focuses on two areas which would seem to be secondary to his ideas: his flamboyant personality and his visual art—sketches, magazine covers, and photographs. Given the rich body of Jackson’s published work, however, and the strength of an earlier volume from many of the same contributors, Everyday America, which is perhaps a better survey of the impact of Jackson’s ideas, the lighter fare of this book is welcomed. In fact, the lone essay that attempts to catalogue the various intellectual endeavors which owe lineage to Jackson, “Passing the Torch” by Timothy Davis, stands out as the weakest and least interesting to read, listing off subfields related to landscape studies without noting Jackson’s influence and leaning heavily on interdisciplinary jargon. It does, however, deserve credit for providing the sole mention of anything related to gender and sexuality in the book, a topic which is curiously absent given the politics of everyday existence which one would expect to find in a book so intimately biographical. While Jackson’s personality is fondly remembered at length, his identity—and with it, issues of gender, race, and sexuality, among other things—is left as something unspoken or, at the very least, left without definition.

Despite this, the remainder of the book is a delight to read largely because the personality of John Brinckerhoff “Brinck” Jackson was so multifaceted—to some he was Brinck, the erudite scholar; to others he was Mr. Jackson, the professor without a graduate degree; and to others still, he was John, the church janitor. Like the titular character of Citizen Kane, Jackson revealed very different sides of his personality and history to the various people in his life, and in the end one can only imagine the depths to his character which will remain a mystery. He performed the roles of blue-blooded heir and worldly traveler, at the same time he was the hardscrabble pragmatist who learned with his hands, an evangelical Catholic, a raconteur par excellence, and a motorbike gang aficionado. Unlike the film, however, this book stays in the safe area of fond remembrance, leaving so much of Jackson an enigma.

While we never see Rosebud, the book makes a move, which comes close. Earlier books on Jackson’s influence have reproduced his sketches, magazine covers, or photographs, but they have done so only in the singular. Here, the book presents three “portfolios” of 15 to 60 images each, which were surely painstakingly curated given Jackson’s prolific production.

The images rarely stand on their own as anything close to art—and Jackson likely would have agreed, given his penchant for casually discarding so much of his work. The sketches are quick and messy, while the photographs are competent yet prosaic. When presented in multiple, the images begin to demonstrate the consistency of Jackson’s eye, show what he paid attention to, and in a strange, mute sort of way, reveal even more about who he was as a person. In his sketches, the shapes of architecture just as easily give way to plant life or geography, or the physicality of the bodies of men in his photographs, as they stood without guile near cars or grouped together in a public landscape.

In the end, the greatest success of the book is that it continues Jackson’s mission of imploring everyone to pay attention to the incredible landscape around them, to see value in the overlooked and apparently mundane. While it does so in part through strong texts and a well-curated set of Jackson’s visual output, it does so most potently simply by invoking the inspiring yet inscrutable figure of Jackson, himself.

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In latest push to clear backlog, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission designates nine new landmarks

Tasked with clearing its 95-item backlog, New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is moving swiftly to shape the future of historic structures in the Big Apple by clearing its docket. On Tuesday, the LPC voted to designate nine items—eight individual structures and one historic district—as New York City Landmarks.
Perhaps the most recognizable item on the list was the Pepsi Cola Sign, which has graced the shores of Long Island City, Queens, since 1936. The sign is not a typical landmark. It's an ad for a beverage conglomerate, albeit a charming, retro ad. A debate arose around the nuances of the designation at a meeting in February to present evidence in favor of preservation. Supporters' eyes ping-ponged anxiously as LPC members brought up possible obstacles objections: Would designation cover the metal scaffolding that the bottle and logo are attached to, or would designation encompass just the signs' iconic appendages, leaving a loophole to alter the sign's arrangement?
The LPC decided to landmark the Pepsi sign, noting in its recommendation that the sign was preserved once before, as the factory it flanked was sold in 1999. The LPC's decision recognizes the city's manufacturing heritage, and preserves the spirit of place that's otherwise the face of bland waterfront luxury condo development. The grassroots Historic Districts Council (HDC) recommends that the LPC "investigate additional preservation protections, such as an easement or some other form of legal contract to help ensure this landmark’s continued presence."
In all, there were ten items recommended for designation, including two whose eclecticism and allure rival the Pepsi sign (the commission delayed a vote on Immaculate Conception Church in the South Bronx.). One residence is a Gravesend landmark: The Lady Moody-Van Sicklen House, a stone, 18th-century Dutch-American-style farmhouse, is a rare survivor from Brooklyn's agrarian past. Local lore holds that the house belonged to Lady Deborah Moody, one of the area's first European women landowners.
New Yorkers thrilled by the Neoclassical flourishes of the Fifth Avenue facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be delighted by the LPC's recognition of the Vanderbilt Mausoleum, a diminutive-by-comparison and little-known work by the same architect. École des Beaux Arts–trained Richard Morris Hunt designed the Romanesque Revival final resting place for the titans of industry, located in Staten Island's Frederick Law Olmsted–designed Moravian Cemetery. The Vanderbilts were so impressed by the meeting of minds that they hired Hunt and Olmstead to collaborate on the clan's low-key country house in North Carolina.
With that memento mori, the LPC voted to designate a few 19th-century structures within Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. Although the entire cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, was up for local designation, even ardent preservationists advocated against the designation, noting that landmark status could place onerous restrictions on the 478-acre cemetery's operations: The plots, headstones, and mausoleums are owned by individuals, with 1,200 new "permanent residents" added annually, potentially complicating the regulation process.
The largest rural cemetery in the U.S., Green-Wood was designed by David Bates Douglass under the guiding landscape principles of Andrew Jackson Downing. The Gothic Revival entrance on Fifth Avenue, designed by Richard Upjohn and home to a vigorous parakeet colony, was declared an Individual Landmark in 1966. A chapel in the same style by Warren & Wetmore (the same firm behind Grand Central Terminal) received designation this time around, as did the Gatehouse and Gatehouse Cottage at the Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance.
For more information and updates on the extension of a Park Slope historic district, St. Augustine’s Church and Rectory, New England on City Island, and other newly-landmarked items, check out the LPC's website.
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Here’s how a phone booth on the side of a highway in Arkansas landed on the National Register of Historic Places

It's no TARDIS, but the Prairie Grove, Arkansas, Airlight telephone booth, on U.S. 62 in front of the Colonial Motel, has defied cell phones and a near fatal encounter with a runaway SUV to become the first phone booth listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1959, this metal-and-glass Airlight booth was nominated in April by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. On November 9th, the National Park Service (NPS) accepted the Airlight into its pantheon of historic structures. Initially, the NPS had hesitations about the nomination. Arkansas Online reports that the National Register/survey coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Ralph Wilcox, received a letter from the National Register stating that the "'listing blurs the line between a 'place' and an artifact, and it begs the questions about where the line between significance and nostalgia is drawn.'" Wilcox emphatically disagreed, and re-submitted a nomination that emphasized the Airlight's distinctive historical characteristics. Prior to the development of the Airlight in 1954, Wilcox explained, phone booths were mostly made of wood and installed indoors. Developed for Bell Telephone System, the Airlight is the first telephone booth in the United States designed especially for the outdoors. The phone booth was intended to serve motorists traveling on the adjacent highway. Wilcox's response has precedent among progressive voices in the critical establishment. Almost a decade ago, BLDGBLOG founder Geoff Manaugh called for a democratization of the definition of architecture in a jeremiad on old school, Adorno-laden architectural criticism. To Manaugh, (some) architecture criticism repels potential readers because critics disdain the vernacular, the architecture of everyday space that most people experience:
Temporary Air Force bases, oil derricks, secret prisons, multi-story car parks, J.G. Ballard novels, Robocop, installation art, China Miéville, Department of Energy waste entombment sites in the mountains of southwest Nevada, Roden Crater, abandoned subway stations, Manhattan valve chambers, helicopter refueling platforms on artificial islands in the South China Sea, emergency space shuttle landing strips, particle accelerators, lunar bases, Antarctic research stations, Cape Canaveral, day-care centers on the fringes of Poughkeepsie, King of Prussia shopping malls, chippies, Fat Burger stands, Ghostbusters, mega-slums, Taco Bell, Salt Lake City multiplexes, Osakan monorail hubs, weather-research masts on the banks of the Yukon, Hadrian's Wall, Die Hard, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Akira, Franz Kafka, Gormenghast, San Diego's exurban archipelago of bad rancho housing, Denver sprawl, James Bond films, even, yes, Home Depot – not every one of those is a building, but they are all related to architecture.
The register divides important sites into five typologies: buildings, districts, sites, structures, and "large objects." The National Register has not shied away from kitschy or unusual listings in the latter category. In August 2002, the NPS granted a register spot to the World's Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, Illinois. The 70-foot-tall condiment container has a capacity of 100,000 gallons and was built in 1949 for the Brooks (rich and tangy!) catsup company. Generally, properties have to be at least 50 years old to be listed on the National Register. According to David Parks, president of Prairie Grove Telephone Company, there are no plans to add an official marker to the site. The telephone company has thought about removing the phone booth, but keeps it standing for nostalgic purposes. It's a revenue generator, besides: the coin box yields three to four dollars in change per year.
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Eavesdrop> Prince Charles’ Royal Rules

  Charles, Prince of Wales, is at it again, giving his two cents regarding the current dismal state of architecture. In a new essay, “Facing up to the Future,” in Architectural Review, the British royal has come up with “10 important geometric principles” to guide future master plans, based on the sacred order of “Nature.”   The Prince said he is not touting an old-fashioned approach. Yes, he is aware that the built-environment must meet the demands of a growing population, and that we must do so by embracing density and using sustainable techniques and modern technology. But why must we build all those tall generic skyscrapers made of concrete and glass? “I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean,” wrote the Prince. If only!
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Marlon Blackwell on the Power of Everyday Design

Marlon Blackwell, principal of Marlon Blackwell Architects and distinguished professor and department head at the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas, practices in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the temptation to design according to a derivative vernacular—and the risk of descending into quaintness—is great. Blackwell seeks instead to operate in the space between the vernacular and the universal, to create buildings that are simultaneously both and neither. "What emerges is something that I like to call the strangely familiar," he said. "We're working with forms in a cultural context that have a first reading of being familiar, but on a second, third, or fourth reading are clearly transgressive to either the local typology or the vernacular. What we try to do is kind of de-typify things—it's really about trying to find or develop an idea about performative surfaces." When Blackwell, who will deliver the afternoon keynote address at next month's Facades+ Dallas conference, talks about "performative surfaces," he does not necessarily mean high-tech building skins. "What I'm really talking about is something that's both sensual and sensible," he said. Blackwell prefers a more commonsensical approach to performance. "It's like the chicken farmer," he explained. "Chicken farmers have figured out that if they orient their large chicken sheds so that the narrow part faces east and west, the chickens don't cook before their time." In Arkansas, even high-profile projects like his Vol Walker Hall and Steven L. Anderson Design Center require careful attention to costs. "Given the modest budgets here, most of what we have to achieve is passive," he said. "I'm trying to instill this into buildings that don't necessarily come with honorific programs: they're everyday sorts of buildings, so consequently they're modest in their application or execution, but they're very high in their aspiration." Blackwell's early passion for drawing resonates through his work today. "I grew up as a cartoonist, so everything I've ever conceived of artistically or architecturally has been conceived of as a visage—as a profile or a silhouette," he said. "I really think of the buildings that we make as figures in a place—as having a figural presence. They become the expressive character of a place, and that expressive character is achieved through things like the envelope, rather than trying to achieve expressive character merely through form. As a result, we're able to build things." Blackwell hopes his own career can serve as a positive lesson to Facades+ Dallas attendees. "I'd like them to walk away thinking: I can do that," he concluded. "Not everybody can be Renzo Piano. There's that everyday kind of work that we do—there's no reason the aspiration has to be any different." To learn more about Facades+ Dallas or to register, visit the conference website.
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The History and Future of the Los Angeles Dingbat

“Dingbat” is a word with many meanings. It’s a synonym for nitwit. In typography, it’s a symbol used in place of a letter. And in Los Angeles, it’s a particular type of multi-family housing, dominant in the 1950s and 1960s and alternately maligned and embraced over the decades. Dingbat 2.0, an upcoming publication from the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design (LA Forum), explores the history and future of dingbat apartments. The subject of a current Kickstarter campaign, Dingbat 2.0 brings together essays on the origins of the Los Angeles dingbat with highlights from the LA Forum’s 2010 Dingbat 2.0 competition, in which participants were asked to reconfigure the dingbat for today’s urban reality. The dingbat is a “really interesting architectural type that can be looked at in a lot of different ways,” said Thurman Grant, co-editor with Joshua G. Stein of Dingbat 2.0. A subset of what John Chase and John Beach called “the stucco box,” the dingbat is unornamented except on its street-facing facade, where applied texture, rear-lit sconces, and pressed-wood script bearing the building’s (often fanciful) name differentiate one structure from the next. In obeisance to postwar cultural norms, dingbat developers built a separate entrance for each apartment, and made room for the automobile in a ground-floor carport. “In one way [the dingbat is] kind of sticky, in that you can apply a lot of things to it,” Grant said. “But it’s also kind of slippery, because you have these apartment buildings that are very clearly dingbats, and others that could be dingbats.” Part of the Dingbat 2.0 project is to better define the dingbat apartment typology. But the dingbat is more than just a historic artifact: it’s also a contemporary problem. The dingbat began as a waystation for upwardly-mobile immigrants from the Midwest. Today’s urban nomads have a different set of needs, which aren’t necessarily addressed by the car-centric stucco box. “That’s what the LA Forum initially identified [in the Dingbat 2.0 competition],” Stein said. “Something’s changed...We want to figure out what would better serve those kinds of populations.” The 2010 competition began a conversation that continues in the Dingbat 2.0 publication, many of whose contributors served on the competition jury. Whether the topic is the dingbat’s historical backstory, the appropriation of the dingbat aesthetic by 1970s avant-garde artists, or a speculative reimagining of small-lot development, Stein sees Dingbat 2.0 as a vehicle to better understanding the Los Angeles of today. “The book becomes a handbook to describe the life of the common Angeleno,” he said. Dingbat 2.0 includes essays by Barbara Bestor, Aaron Betsky, James Black, Dana Cuff, John Kaliski, John Southern, Steven Treffers, and Wim de Wit, plus a photo essay by Judy Fiskin. Click here to contribute to the Dingbat 2.0 Kickstarter campaign.