October 31, 2012
"If you were to walk through an architecture school today—and I don’t recommend it—you’d think that the height of invention was to make your building look like a Venus flytrap, or that mathematically efficient triangular spaceframes were the answer to everything, every problem of space and habitability. But this is like someone really good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word. It doesn’t matter what you can do, formally, to the words in your document if those words don’t actually say anything."

This is an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing, an obituary for the architect Lebbeus Woods, who died this week “just as the hurricane was moving out of New York City and as his very neighborhood, Lower Manhattan, had temporarily become part of the Atlantic seabed, floodwaters pouring into nearby subway tunnels and knocking out power to nearly every building south of 23rd Street, an event seemingly predicted, or forewarned, by Lebbeus’s own work.”

The whole obituary, by Geoff Manaugh, is well worth reading, for its personal insight into why Woods’s work matters so much, as well as its thoughtfulness, humility, and all-round-general-loveliness. The paragraph above particularly caught my eye for two reasons: firstly, how sad that an architecture expert (and teacher) clearly doesn’t think much of the state of architecture education; and secondly, doesn’t this statement extend to the design field at large (and anyone in the business of “content creation,” I suppose)? Doesn’t the idea of “someone really good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word” resonate for you? We’ve all become so adept at the superficial that we can forget to ask the difficult questions about why we’re even doing something in the first place. It’s not often that an obituary sparks as many questions as it answers, but it’s somehow deeply appropriate this would be the case for one of Lebbeus Woods. He would surely have approved.

October 11, 2012
"Where are the clothes? And by the way, has Rem Koolhaas ever been asked to design another store?"

— Bit of architectish bitchery in the New York magazine story, Peter Marino: The Leather Daddy of Luxury. He’s talking, of course, about Koolhaas (and OMA)’s Prada store in New York, and makes me realize I’ve always been a bit baffled by it. Glorious space for artworks (on the top level, at least), but the poky downstairs is hardly conducive to actually trying on clothes (or, I imagine, shelling out wads of cash, if Prada’s your thing.) Good piece.

September 20, 2012
"Architecture, the most public of endeavours, is practised by people who inhabit a smugly hermetic milieu which is cultish."

…And that’s just the beginning of Jonathan Meades’ fabulously bilious rant, Architects are the last people who should shape our cities, an extract from his new book, Museum Without Walls. Here’s more:

"The entire quasi-cult is cosily conjoined by mutual dependence and by an ingrown, verruca-like jargon which derives from the more dubious end of American academe."

and…

"Architecture talks about architecture as though it is disconnected from all other endeavours, an autonomous discipline which is an end in itself. Now, it would be acceptable to discuss opera or sawmill technology or athletics or the refinement of lard in such a way. They can be justifiably isolated, for they don’t impinge on anyone outside, say, the lard community – the notoriously factional lard community. To isolate architecture is blindness, and an abjuration of responsibility."

and…

We are all familiar with the hubristic pomp that often results when actors direct themselves. Appointing architects to conceive places is like appointing foxes to advise on chicken security.”

Meades’ real beef is that architects are incapable of looking beyond the aesthetic to imagine the context of the environment around the buildings they design. He’s not entirely wrong, though the smart-thinking young architects I’ve talked to would likely argue that he’s talking a load of old codswallop (technical term.) Still, he does make his bad-tempered points with such style, you can pretty much forgive his wild generalizations (even as you quite want to send him a packet of Tums to make him feel better.)

April 5, 2012
"I really kind of wonder about Frank Gehry. I just don’t understand how you can get so many tin cans and make architecture out of it."

Simply lovely Q&A with Pedro Guerrero in Architect magazine. The 95 year old was the longtime photographer of the work and life of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Alexander Calder, and his stories are tender, wry and insightful. If you’re in Los Angeles, please go along to the retrospective, Photographs of a Modern Life, showing at the Woodbury University Hollywood Space until April 25th — and let me know how his pictures are in real life!

March 28, 2012
Google celebrated the 126th birthday of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with a tribute on its home page (featuring Crown Hall, a building he designed at the Illinois Institute of Technology). Guardian writer, Steve Rose takes a spin through the history books to ask a simple question: what would Mies have had to say about today’s design landscape? Quick, fun read.

Google celebrated the 126th birthday of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with a tribute on its home page (featuring Crown Hall, a building he designed at the Illinois Institute of Technology). Guardian writer, Steve Rose takes a spin through the history books to ask a simple question: what would Mies have had to say about today’s design landscape? Quick, fun read.

March 28, 2012
"Urban renovation alone can’t solve our problems of unemployment and drugs. But it at least gives us the opportunity to live with more dignity."

So speaks Stéphane Gatignon, the mayor of Sevran, one of the poorest Paris suburbs, where unemployment now hovers around 40 percent among the young. 

The suburb is the focus of At Edge Of Paris, A Housing Project Becomes A Beacon, a tour round a recently refurbished housing project in Sevran. Once a blight on the city, in terms both visual and visceral, the retrofitted tower has transformed an ominous monument into “an exemplary landmark to the Paris skyline,” writes Michael Kimmelman. And, note, the bill for the retrofit was $15 million, little more than half of what it would have cost to knock down the towerblock and rebuild something else, which would also have been a far more timely and invasive process.

Is life in Sevran perfect now? Far from it. Are all the residents happy with their new digs? Nope. As Mayor Gatignon notes above, urban renovation alone can’t solve deep social problems. Nonetheless, this is at its heart a positive story about the power of thoughtful architecture, even while other efforts for transformation must also be continually made.

February 8, 2012
"It’s time to address the calamity that is Penn Station."

— Anyone who’s ever had to negotiate rush hour in New York’s busiest transit hub will surely raise a cheer for this statement, in the article, Restore A Gateway To Dignity, by New York Times architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman (who’s really doing a standup job in his newish role.) The station is a monstrosity, a fire hazard, a nightmare of frazzled commuters and colliding wheely bags… and Kimmelman has a suggestion for a new plan. It’s not entirely out of the question, though any significant change is years away. But one can dream, right? (For those in New York, Kimmelman is speaking in the D-Crit speaker series at the School of Visual Arts on February 14th.)

February 2, 2012
"Through this year’s record-setting run of 100-degree days [Sandra Barry and husband, James McNown] were racking up minuscule $13 monthly electric bills."

Off the Grid in the City is an interesting New York Times piece by Karrie Jacobs about SOL Austin, “an ambitious attempt to upend the conventions of the American subdivision,” designed by architect Chris Krager and Russell M Becker, owner of the construction company, Beck-Reit & Sons. Loved the insight into the complexity and challenges of trying to create a “net zero” sustainable suburb, and the insight afforded by the quote above. It’s those kinds of cold, hard figures that will drive the behavior change (and solar array installation) we need to see.

January 26, 2012
Some might argue that I picked up on this story solely so I could share one of my favorite pictures from last summer’s Istanbul vacation. And truth be known, they might have a point. (If you find yourself in the city, a visit to the underground Basilica Cistern is compulsory. What a magical, breathtakingly beautiful place.) Nonetheless, After Being Stricken By Drought, Istanbul Yields Ancient Treasure is a wonderful piece about important new archaeological finds near the city. I also enjoyed a glimpse of the truly painstaking nature of the work and the reminder that, doubtless, nothing we look at is truly what it seems. 

Some might argue that I picked up on this story solely so I could share one of my favorite pictures from last summer’s Istanbul vacation. And truth be known, they might have a point. (If you find yourself in the city, a visit to the underground Basilica Cistern is compulsory. What a magical, breathtakingly beautiful place.) Nonetheless, After Being Stricken By Drought, Istanbul Yields Ancient Treasure is a wonderful piece about important new archaeological finds near the city. I also enjoyed a glimpse of the truly painstaking nature of the work and the reminder that, doubtless, nothing we look at is truly what it seems. 

December 10, 2011

This video has been doing the rounds, and it’s one to savor: rapper Ice Cube waxing lyrically about the improvisational genius of Charles and Ray Eames. “What I love about the Eames is how resourceful they were,” he says. “They were doing mashups before mashups even existed.” 

December 5, 2011

At the weekend, I got a chance to see Urbanized, the new film from Helvetica and Objectified film maker, Gary Hustwit. It’s a stylish treatment of an enormously complex topic, and though the viewer gets a little whiplash from the superfast tour of so many of the world’s major cities, there was still a lot that was new and thought-provoking. I jotted down some stats that surprised me:

  • The population of London lives in the slums of Mumbai, where as many as 600 people share one toilet. An amazing woman, whose name I sadly didn’t catch, said that politicians don’t want to build more toilets because they don’t want to encourage people to live in slums. “As if people come to shit,” she retorted, acidly. Pretty good point.

  • Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities, was blunt about the complexity of the challenge facing urban planners and architects looking to figure out housing for the many billions of people on the planet. What stops him from slitting his wrists, he said, was the fact that a small group of innovators can demonstrate the efficacy of something entirely new… which can then be rolled out at scale quite quickly. Change can happen fast, in other words.

  • In Denmark, 30% of the population commutes by bike. The traffic flow system is designed so that parked cars protect the cyclists, and not the other way round (as is the norm in so many other cities.) 

  • In the same vein, the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, marveled at the fact that so many citizens seem to see parking as a fundamental civic right. Instead, a new public transportation system in the Colombian capital elevated bus, bike and pedestrian lanes over roads for cars. 

  • Brazilian architecture guru, Oscar Niemeyer made a brief, cameo appearance, showing wry humor. He wondered at the fact that in his career he has designed 23 churches—despite the fact that he’s an atheist. 

  • Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas thinks that architectural competitions are “a complete waste of intellect.” 

  • Foster + Partners founder, and British architecture legend, Norman Foster: “As an architect, if you’re not an optimist, you’re not going to survive.” 

  • New Orleans-based architect, Grover Mouton was hilariously scathing about the architectural rush to the city after Hurricane Katrina. A lot of architects had a lot of fun at a lot of expense—and without making much impact, he said, rather sadly. 

Finally, the concluding story in the film, about a battle to prevent the redevelopment of the area around the train station in Stuttgart, made me cry. I didn’t know about the Stuttgart 21 project, and still need to read more. But one thing I do know: once you cut down trees, they’re gone for good. And while there was almost a Roald Dahl-style characterization of “bad fat cats” vs the persecuted commoners just trying to talk sense, the developers and the politicians sure didn’t come off looking good.

October 28, 2011

Design With the Other 90%: Cities has opened at the United Nations, and NYT’s new architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, declared it a hit. In Rescued By Design, he goes through a number of the socially minded projects on display and writes approvingly of a design movement he describes as looking to provide “economical, smart solutions to address the problems of the world’s poorest people.” Included in his review, a project to clean up the Bang Bua Canal in Bangkok, where thousands of families had lived in stilt houses above polluted flood water. Architects redesigned the community (see the before and after pictures, above.) Given the floods that are devastating Thailand and, particularly, Bangkok, it’d be interesting to know how this project is currently faring… Thoughts are with all the residents of the region.

[Photos (c) ACHR. Design With The Other 90%: Cities runs at the United Nations in New York through January 9, 2012.]

September 26, 2011

Apple’s new headquarters design comprises 2.8 million square feet of office buildings. Official details are still scarce, though the application and images such as the one above have been posted on the City of Cupertino’s website. This week, New Yorker architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, weighs in, and he’s not exactly delighted at the plans: 

However elegant the headquarters might turn out to be, it will still be a huge suburban office complex, reinforcing car culture at a time when that seems increasingly less tenable. I suppose Apple has solved enough problems over the years that it may not be entirely fair to expect it to conquer suburban sprawl, too, but you would hope that a forward-thinking company would at least try not to compound the problem.

Apple’s new headquarters design comprises 2.8 million square feet of office buildings. Official details are still scarce, though the application and images such as the one above have been posted on the City of Cupertino’s website. This week, New Yorker architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, weighs in, and he’s not exactly delighted at the plans: 

However elegant the headquarters might turn out to be, it will still be a huge suburban office complex, reinforcing car culture at a time when that seems increasingly less tenable. I suppose Apple has solved enough problems over the years that it may not be entirely fair to expect it to conquer suburban sprawl, too, but you would hope that a forward-thinking company would at least try not to compound the problem.

July 11, 2011
Here’s a design for a new workspace created by New York-based firm, Antenna. It’s featured in Knoll CEO, Andrew Cogan, on Design, Innovation and the Evolution of the Workplace. I conducted this interview with the furniture manufacturer’s chief executive, and liked what he had to say, particularly this comment on how they think about technology when designing furniture:

A building changes every 30-40 years; furniture changes every 10-12 years, technology changes every 2-3 years. So we’ve never believed in the idea of designing furniture for tech. 

Here’s a design for a new workspace created by New York-based firm, Antenna. It’s featured in Knoll CEO, Andrew Cogan, on Design, Innovation and the Evolution of the Workplace. I conducted this interview with the furniture manufacturer’s chief executive, and liked what he had to say, particularly this comment on how they think about technology when designing furniture:

A building changes every 30-40 years; furniture changes every 10-12 years, technology changes every 2-3 years. So we’ve never believed in the idea of designing furniture for tech. 

June 29, 2011

The 11th Serpentine Gallery Pavilion to be hosted within the grounds of London’s Serpentine Gallery is a “garden within a garden” by Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor. Or, as International Herald Tribune design critic Alice Rawsthorn put it, a “Swiss cowshed and secret garden.” The gorgeously understated structure plays with the concept of indoor/outdoor, with the interior garden designed by Piet Oudolf.

In an artist’s statement, Zumthor described his idea for the prestigious commission:

A garden is the most intimate landscape ensemble I know of. It is close to us. There we cultivate the plants we need. A garden requires care and protection. And so we encircle it, we defend it and fend for it. We give it shelter. The garden turns into a place…

There is something else that strikes me in this image of a garden fenced off within the larger landscape around it: something small has found sanctuary within something big.

Given the record temperatures London is experiencing right now, it strikes me that harried city dwellers will also find sanctuary here. The pavilion officially opens to the public on July 1st.

(Photographs: John Offenbach (interior); Walter Herfst (exterior). (c) Peter Zumthor.)