Point of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

June 2011

Big Easy Bike Boom

06/30/11

Big Easy Bike Boom

NOLA native Sarah Markel on the levee bike path along the Mississippi. Photo: Catherine Markel. Earlier this month, I spent a week in Madison, Wisconsin, where I sat through lectures by some of the world’s leading authorities on ways to make cities more appealing, functional, and sustainable. But the most valuable takeaways came not from inside the Madison Convention Center, but from the city itself; more specifically, from the helmeted, benevolent army that pedaled its way quietly and efficiently through the streets. I’d heard about Madison being a bike-friendly city, but wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, never having been to Portland or Minneapolis or Davis, California, or any of those other places that usually get the highest praise for their bike-oriented...

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Modernism Mummified

06/29/11

Modernism Mummified

The Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Company building at 510 Fifth Avenue, New York. The lower levels are being renovated. The ancient Egyptians were the ur-preservationists, but I have always thought that there was something perverse about their method of immortalizing dead kings. The first part of the process, carried out by skilled professionals, was to extract all the internal organs of the Pharoah’s body—all the parts that we call “vital” for good reason, that enabled the man to walk, talk, eat, and think. These the embalmers put away in sealed jars. They then went to great lengths to swathe the hollow shell of a body so we can go stare at it in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much like the Egyptian mummifiers, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)...

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Too Much History

06/28/11

Too Much History

The caption was promising. “Cloud is a work of experimental architecture,” it said, “a floating roof made simply from helium gas, water and soap; an instantly deployable canopy for conversation in the shade.” In reality, it wasn’t quite so deployable. Little clouds of soap foam did rise into a net spanned over Asif Khan’s installation—but they sadly yielded to gravity before even getting close to building up a canopy. Unsurprisingly, nobody chose to have a conversation in the dripping soap, except for children. The British architect Asif Khan was one of three winners of Design Miami/Basel’s Designers of the Future Award. While the world’s most exclusive design fair nominates one established Designer of the Year in its Miami edition every December, it presents the...

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Places that Work: Seattle Central Library

06/27/11

Places that Work: Seattle Central Library

The Seattle Central Library works so well because of something obvious: its architects carefully considered the role of a public library during its projected lifetime and designed it accordingly. When Rem Koolhaas, Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA/LMN, and their teams set to work they went into a detailed analysis of what it would take to enrich citizens’ lives and how the job of the building would evolve with the institution it housed. They assessed how technologies and the social and cultural roles of the library would change, for example, at a time when libraries need to house new media, rather than just paper technology. Opened in 2004, the library’s functionality has been constantly given positive reviews for the past 7 years. This public’s satisfaction is, however, tinged by...

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Holding Pattern at MoMA PS1

06/24/11

Holding Pattern at MoMA PS1

With an abundance of activities happening in New York all summer long, it’s hard to decide where to spend those valuable weekends. I’m told one of the hottest summer traditions though, is not a party on a roof, in a pool, a park or an abandoned warehouse but instead takes place at an institution like MoMA PS1. Nestled in Long Island City, MoMA’s contemporary art counterpart transforms its courtyard into a lively venue every summer for the museum’s popular music festival, Warm Up. This year’s event will be my first, but I’ve heard many good reviews from my friends, raving about the previous years’ successes. Each year, Warm Up not only brings together a line-up of fresh music talents, but the venue itself is a vibrant playground for adults.  Since 2000, the annual...

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The New Agro Model?

06/24/11

The New Agro Model?

I’ve always had an obsession with abandoned buildings. Maybe that’s because they speak to the nature of change in society, and always seems to be bursting with potential. They are often reincarnated as business parks, apartments, galleries, but these transformations are mere shadows of what the buildings were once. Bustling centers of industry, of innovation and commerce, they've been left to the winds of time. There are too many places in the U.S. where post-industrial abandonment is a common occurrence. The structures lie barren and overgrown like monuments of a past civilization; reminding us of what we were capable of once and what they can become in the future. In the sleepy little Connecticut town where I grew up, there is such a structure: a sleeping giant void of care,...

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Tomorrow's Designers

06/22/11

Tomorrow's Designers

I’m trying to remember, did I ever think about things like public design, civic planning, or product innovation in the eighth grade?  I’ll be honest, the eighth grade wasn’t all that long ago. I know that in language arts we mapped sentences; we learned about Julius Caesar’s murderous frenemies in Latin class. But the real-world work of designers--isolating problems, then drafting, tweaking and prototyping solutions--I don’t remember that being part of our curriculum. Lately, however, design practice, with its inherent capacity for invention, community engagement and change, is finding new relevance in K-12 classrooms. Young designers are encouraged by institutions to participate in solving social and environmental problems. The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design...

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The Artist in the Architect

06/21/11

The Artist in the Architect

Large Baths, Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli; Louis I. Kahn, 1951; Pastel on paper; 7 ½ x 8 ½ inches. Looking through the Metropolis magazine archives, I recently came upon a quote from Eero Saarinen, “To me, the drawn language is a very revealing language; one can see in a few lines whether a man is really an architect.” Reading this quote, I nodded, internally, certain that I knew what he meant. Saarinen’s own sketches on the same page were composed of graceful, precise pencil lines sweeping in curves that betrayed an intimate knowledge of volume and structure. The thin strokes were surely the same ones that composed his elevations and floor-plans, because he was really an architect. Then there is Louis I. Kahn. Visiting the collection of Kahn’s drawings and sketches at Lori...

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Phyllis Wheatley Falls

06/20/11

Phyllis Wheatley Falls

Photo: Matthew Hinton/The Times-Picayune. Not even a month after we wrote about the impending demolition of the Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School, the battle over one of New Orleans’s last standing mid-century modernist schools has come to an abrupt but decisive conclusion. On Friday, bulldozers began their work on the dilapidated structure, two months before anyone had any reason to expect them. Image courtesy World Monuments Fund. The Recovery School District (RSD), which works to rehabilitate non-performing schools in Louisiana, decided last July to raze Phyllis Wheatley in August 2011 and build a “21st century school” in its place. The move had the support of the community board of the neighborhood of Tremé-Lafitte, but was strongly opposed by preservation groups like...

Posted at 05:22 PM | Permalink | Comments

America's Deteriorating Treasures

06/20/11

America's Deteriorating Treasures

Since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been compiling a list of national treasures, sites of architectural and cultural significance that are facing demolition or serious decay. Each year, one-of-a-kind historical places are added, cataloguing American architectural history and raising awareness of endangered cultural gems. While some of these sites are threatened by new development and projects, others are simply left to deteriorate due to lack of preservation and financial resource. This year’s selection of 11 places facing a ruinous fate includes: Bear Butte, Meade County, South Dakota Named for the 4,426-foot mountain called Mato Paha that is shaped like a bear sleeping on its side, Native American tribal people and international visitors have been using...

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Building Social Responsibility...Right

06/20/11

Building Social Responsibility...Right

The Make It Right Foundation, established by movie star Brad Pitt, has received a lot of press. He and his equally famous partner, Angelina Jolie, are well regarded in philanthropy circles because they do so much of it. Poverty and its resultant ills are their main focus. For instance, in Cambodia,  they work to increase access to medical care and housing. Presumably, the involvement of these high-profile benefactors has ensured the success of their ventures. In fact an article in The Economist argues that today’s philanthropies must be guided by their founders to be successful. Thus the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation limits its lifespan to 50 years after the last death of its founders. However, personal leadership is not the sole factor in making a philanthropic organization...

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Part of the Process

06/17/11

Part of the Process

In our June 2011 issue, Peter Hall writes about the fascinating relationship that the giant design consultancy, IDEO, has with a very particular type of client – governmental agencies. The firm’s trademark design thinking method is showing mammoth bureaucratic juggernauts like the Social Security Administration a deep insight into who uses their services, and how they can help streamline even the most convoluted process, allowing government officials to effectively reach out to the citizens who need them (while saving costs). In the process, IDEO also had its own significant learning curve on how to use design to fix problems in governance. There are some interesting parts to that journey that we couldn’t share with you in the magazine, like the videos produced by the firm as...

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High Line Expansion

06/17/11

High Line Expansion

Like many others, I was brimming with anticipation last Wednesday to see the High Line’s recent expansion, the second section of a three-part plan to build a linear park out of an abandoned railroad on Manhattan’s West Side. Ever since my first visit to the High Line last September, I have been smitten with the experience of standing on an elevated greenway overlooking the waterfront. I’ve been equally blown away by the ambition of a project initiated and envisioned by Friends of the High Line. It became my favorite spot in New York where I often brought my visitors to marvel at this innovative development. So when Section 2 of the park opened on June 8th, I hurried to 11th Avenue in the morning, eager to catch my first glimpse of the city’s latest urban redesign. I started my...

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Successful Blue Ventures

06/15/11

Successful Blue Ventures

courtesy Blue Ventures Buckminster Fuller was an architect, but in the truest sense of the title, he was a problem-solver who viewed complexity with the eyes of a scientist. Upon his death in 1983, his family established the Buckminster Fuller Institute to carry on his legacy of visionary innovation through holistic, interdisciplinary, systems thinking to tackle large-scale problems that affect humanity. In his own words, “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.” To help implement such lofty idealism the Brooklyn-based institute has sought to aid organizations and programs by awarding an annual prize of $100,000 through their eponymous Buckminster Fuller...

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New Life in the Old Plaza

06/14/11

New Life in the Old Plaza

Just as Seville was about to construct a new parking facility under one of its historic plazas, archeologists discovered Roman ruins below ground. So instead of digging down, officials in the Spanish city decided to build up. In this way, the ruins would be preserved, while a new structure, hovering above them, would give new life to the plaza. To accomplish this feat, the city launched an international competition; the winner was German architect Juergen Mayer H., a Mies van der Rohe Award recipient. At first sight the structure seems to contrast too much with its surroundings, but the design actually drew on the city's ancient trees and secular native architecture. From the trees came the inspiration for a canopy of light and shadow. This, combined with the undulations...

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JR's TED Wish Unfolds in Pakistan

06/13/11

JR's TED Wish Unfolds in Pakistan

Photo courtesy 18% Grey for TEDx Karachi At this year’s TED Conference in Long Beach, California, one of the highlights was a skinny, sunglass-donning Frenchman who goes by the moniker, JR. Being the recipient of the TED Prize is clearly an awkward and unexpected occurrence in the life of a street artist trying to protect his anonymity—he is now struggling to negotiate semi-anonymity in a line of work that depends on remaining in the shadows. Not an easy thing to achieve when trying to launch a global art movement. Or is it? How, then, could this secretive (sort of) street artist maintain his identity (and credibility) and fulfill the very public mandate of the TED Prize, which calls for nothing short of  changing the world?  To pull this off seems worthy of a prize in itself. ...

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The Grand Dame of Textile Art

06/10/11

The Grand Dame of Textile Art

Sheila Hicks's brilliantly colored loops, tangles, weaves, and tassels produce an instantaneous, visceral reaction.

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06/10/11

Midcentury Modernism in Film

For five consecutive Sundays this summer, the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas will be showing a series of design-conscious feature films to revisit the vibrancy of 20th Century Modern life. Suits & Sleuths: Midcentury Modernism in Film will include two dramas, a comedy, a suspense thriller, and soap opera that capture the attitudes, architecture, and design aesthetic of the 1950’s. The series begins on July 10th with a screening of Executive Suite, a dramatic film made in 1954 depicting the power struggles in corporate America. Directed by Robert Wise, Executive Suite was adapted from a novel with the same name written by Cameron Hawley, and nominated for four Academy Awards. The dramatic plot follows the challenge to find a new leader for a furniture company, the Tredway...

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Places That Work: Soane House

06/10/11

Places That Work: Soane House

Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photo: Martin Charles We have a fundamental psychological need to express who we think we are by personalizing our homes which, in turn, give us comfort and solace. Our personalized rooms tell others about us. They have the added benefit of reminding us about what we feel is important to us. Unfortunately, homeowners are often tempted to follow design trends that, sometimes, don’t mesh with who they really are, causing tension and stress. When I think about what makes a home a uniquely personal expression, Sir John Soane springs to mind. He did an exceptional job in creating a residence that reflected what he valued about himself; his efforts can be seen at the house museum that shares his name in London. Soane (1753-1837), a...

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Archiprix 2011

06/09/11

Archiprix 2011

Prior to moving to New York nine months ago, I knew and cared very little about architecture. Or at least I thought it would never be a subject that would interest me. But it was hard to stay ignorant to the built environment in this densely structured city, when it holds such a variety of architectural expressions. From neoclassical to Art Deco to high modern aesthetic, the distinguishing styles of the surrounding buildings define each distinct neighborhood in Manhattan, teaching its inhabitants to be aware of architecture. Last Friday, I joined a group of 200 architecture-enthusiasts on the first day of their Archiprix International study program. Developed and sponsored by Hunter Douglas since 2001, the biennial architectural tour takes a large group of architects, manufacturers,...

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Sunlight Delivery System

06/08/11

Sunlight Delivery System

A criticism frequently heard at recent furniture expos, from Milan to New York, was the absence of real product innovation. The bad economy has something to do with this shortage: During the past few years many manufacturers have used restraint, showing few new products, trotting out previous years’ introductions. Still, there were a few surprises. One of them was the first-ever presence of Minnesota-based 3M, sandwiched in between bathroom faucets and textile stands at ICFF in a shiny, large-scale booth that seemed to say little more than, “We’re here!”. A Midwestern approach to attention-grabbing?  At closer inspection I found one of the most interesting offerings, no larger than an iPad: a new way to light up a building using sunlight – sans skylights or photovoltaic...

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Solar Roof Pod

06/08/11

Solar Roof Pod

One of the first lessons you learn in a big city is the concept of “space”, rather, too little of it. While our country cousins may learn about the cycles of the moon and that those three stars in a line make up Orion's belt, those of us who live in a dense, high-rise metropolis learn how to make the most of a shoe-box sized apartment and covet having doors to our bedrooms. This lack of urban space has lead to The City College of New York Team's concept for the 2011 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. The international competition challenges 20 college teams from New Zealand, Belgium, Canada and China as well as across the United States to take on issues of creating solar-powered homes. Aside from the problems the teams already face, Team New York (one of two New York City...

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Teaching Tweeting

06/07/11

Teaching Tweeting

How many words does it take to change the world? This question underpins my work at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where I teach courses on sustainability, diversity, and environmental communications, and likely makes some of my more conventional colleagues squirm.  Tasked with bringing the newsroom into the classroom, I entered into the school directly from work as a professional environmental journalist. Despite the environment’s connection to every challenge we face, increasing environmental awareness is an uphill battle because our natural world regularly slips from public consciousness. The way to make the information relevant, I learned, was to make it personal. I believe that our voices matter—and that we should own our voices...

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The High Costs of Straight-jacketing a River

06/06/11

The High Costs of Straight-jacketing a River

The Mississippi floodplain after the floods, May 4, 2011.  While the Mississippi River was flooding this spring and as the news coverage heated up, I tried to match the satellite before-and-after images to all the hyperbole I saw on TV.  It quickly became clear to me that there is a mismatch in what people are experiencing as individuals and what the river is experiencing. The floodplain on April 29, 2011. Take a look at the satellite images.  Observe the channels the river has carved back and forth on its natural floodplain.  And remember that the flooding today is well within the limits of the river’s historical bounds. To the river, this spring’s flood was not a remarkable event; it is simply part of the river’s natural lifecycle. Yes, this season’s high levels of...

Posted at 11:34 AM | Permalink | Comments

Beyond Preservation?

06/03/11

Beyond Preservation?

Photo: Benoit Pailley, courtesy the New Museum. Rem Koolhaas has a knack for coining words, a skill evident in the name of his and his architecture firm OMA’s current show at New York City’s New Museum:  “Cronocaos”. Catchy and primitive at once, the title drops the “h” from “chronos” and “chaos” respectively.  It’s a classic Koolhaasian move, visually and viscerally dramatizing the notion of a world confused about the relation of past to present and what this means for architecture—particularly for preservation.  “Architects—we who change the world—have been oblivious or hostile to the manifestations of preservation,” Koolhaas writes.  The result, he argues, is that an already large and ever-increasing part of the globe displays the same bad sort of...

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The $5,000 Home for Developed Nations

06/02/11

The $5,000 Home for Developed Nations

Barnraising, image courtesy brockhistoricalsocieties.ca The best thing about architects is not simply that they use cool software or design buildings or even that they can help create interesting spaces. The best thing about architects is that they solve problems. In school, as students, they are challenged to address social, cultural, racial, environmental, and not least, spatial, issues. Given the opportunity, they use their critical thinking skills to solve many different problems. Based on this premise, architecture critic Guy Horton and I discussed the possibility of starting a round table or colloquium to brainstorm solving some pressing problems with architects and academics. Our efforts went nowhere. Then we read a column in the Economist suggesting that academics and...

Posted at 11:06 AM | Permalink | Comments

A United Front for Healthy Waterways

06/01/11

A United Front for Healthy Waterways

Rendering of a proposed rain garden in the public right-or-way with pervious street side parking. courtesy the Kansas City, Missouri Water Services Department. Assessing the issues It starts here. We’re in the middle of a parking lot, like a thousand others in the Kansas City Metro Area, and millions more across the country. Like most lots, this one is dotted with bits of trash: an empty plastic cup, wadded up paper, stains from a long-gone car’s oil leak. Sooner or later, it will rain. Don Wilkinson, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey said that at this particular suburban plaza, south of downtown Kansas City, Mo., rain will flow in sheets off the parking lot, taking the aforementioned debris with it. It will wash into storm sewers around the lot’s perimeter and...

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Examining contemporary life through design, architecture, interior design, product design, graphic design, crafts, planning, and preservation.