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Common Edge

The One Redeeming Feature That Brings Humanity to the Sameness of Suburban Sprawl

09:30 - 9 August, 2017
The One Redeeming Feature That Brings Humanity to the Sameness of Suburban Sprawl, Scottsdale, Arizona. Image <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scottsdale_cityscape4.jpg'>via Wikimedia</a> in public domain
Scottsdale, Arizona. Image via Wikimedia in public domain

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "The Work of Architecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

I attended graduate school, in geography, in Tucson, Arizona, in the late 1990s. Tucson draws fame from a number of things, including its Mexican-American heritage, its chimichangas, its sky islands, and its abundant population of saguaro cacti.

Plenty of things about Tucson, though, are perfectly, achingly ordinary.

Perhaps the most ordinary thing about Tucson led me to develop something halfway between a hobby and an academic pursuit. On occasion, whether for sport or research, friends and I used to go “sprawl-watching.” We were not exactly, say, Walter Benjamin strolling through the arcades, embracing the human pageantry of Paris. But we did our best to plumb Tucson’s depths.

A Brief History of the Impoverished Culture of Architectural Research

09:30 - 2 August, 2017
A Brief History of the Impoverished Culture of Architectural Research, Courtesy of Common Edge
Courtesy of Common Edge

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "The Confused and Impoverished State of Architectural Research."

For a discipline that thinks of itself as learned, scholarly research eludes the architectural profession. This is a long standing problem. “Failure,” John Ruskin wrote in his 1848 introduction to The Seven Lamps of Architecture, “is less frequently attributable to either insufficiency of means or impatience of labor, than to a confused understanding of the thing actually to be done.”

Roughly 150 years later, Harry Nilsson—surely singing to architects—opined in his song, Joy that if you’re unable to find the answer to a question, you may not have a question worth asking (and probably don’t have a problem worth solving). In between Ruskin and rock and roll, is William Peña, the author of the architectural programming guide, Problem Seeking, who nearly a half-century ago wrote that “you can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is.”

How Architecture Affects Your Brain: The Link Between Neuroscience and the Built Environment

09:30 - 25 July, 2017
How Architecture Affects Your Brain: The Link Between Neuroscience and the Built Environment, <a href='http://www.archdaily.com/533664/ad-classics-thorncrown-chapel-e-fay-jones'>Thorncrown Chapel / E. Fay Jones</a>. Image © Randall Connaughton
Thorncrown Chapel / E. Fay Jones. Image © Randall Connaughton

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Sarah Williams Goldhagen on How the Brain Works and What It Means for Architecture."

Sarah Williams Goldhagen has taken a big swing. Her new book, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, is nothing less than a meticulously constructed argument for completely rethinking our way of looking at architecture. A longtime critic for The New Republic and a former lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Goldhagen has taken a deep dive into the rapidly advancing field of cognitive science, in an attempt to link it to a new human-centered approach to the built world. The book is both an examination of the science behind cognition (and its relevance to architecture), and a polemic against the stultifying status quo. Recently I talked to the author, who was busy preparing for a year-long trip around the world, about the book, the science, and the state of architectural education.

A Letter to the Parents of Prospective Architecture School Students

09:30 - 18 July, 2017
A Letter to the Parents of Prospective Architecture School Students, Courtesy of Common Edge
Courtesy of Common Edge

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "A Letter to Prospective Architecture School Parents."

Is your child suddenly wearing angular clothes and pretending to need glasses and talking about things like maylines (sorry, forgot we’re not in the 90s anymore) and 3d-printing and the power of the research lab to change the world studio? Has your child started rejecting your Frank Lloyd Wright photo books and started asking for that super sweet punched-out Chora L Works thing that makes no sense to you because there are literally holes in it? Has your child refused to go on anymore holiday house tours because, seriously mom, this is what I do all day at school?

Then congratulations! You now have an architecture school student child. And as much as we have—and need—the framework of, say, Adult Children of Alcoholics, just as deeply do we need a framework for Adult Parents of Architecture Students. You may be panicking right now. You may be wondering why Bessie is suddenly hating prints (unless she’s wearing all the prints at the same time); why Mark is rolling his eyes when you say there’s a nice-looking house for sale down the block. Rest assured, these are phases that will pass.

I would like to offer you the Phases of Architectural Education, so that you may feel calmer as you embark on this new journey:

The One Big Problem That Advocates of Copenhagen-Style Urbanism Often Overlook

09:30 - 12 July, 2017
© <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/diversey/15325678721/'>Flickr user diversey</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>CC BY 2.0</a>
© Flickr user diversey licensed under CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "What We Can (and Can’t) Learn from Copenhagen."

I spent four glorious days in Copenhagen recently and left with an acute case of urban envy. (I kept thinking: It’s like... an American Portland—except better.) Why can’t we do cities like this in the US? That’s the question an urban nerd like me asks while strolling the famously pedestrian-friendly streets, as hordes of impossibly blond and fit Danes bicycle briskly past.

Copenhagen is one of the most civilized cities on the planet. The world’s “most livable,” it’s often called, with some justification. (Although a Danish relative did caution me, “Spend a few weeks here in January before you make that pronouncement.”) But the seemingly effortless civility, Copenhagen’s amazing level of grace, is not an accident of place or happenstance. It’s the product of a shared belief that transcends urban design, even though the city is a veritable laboratory for pretty much all of the best practices in the field.

How Photography Helped to Dehumanize Our Cities

09:30 - 13 June, 2017
How Photography Helped to Dehumanize Our Cities, Singapore skyline at night. Image <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Singapore_Skyline_at_Night_with_Blue_Sky.JPG'>via Wikimedia</a> (public domain image taken by Wikimedia user Merlion444)
Singapore skyline at night. Image via Wikimedia (public domain image taken by Wikimedia user Merlion444)

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "How Photography Profoundly Reshaped Our Ideas About Cities."

Early in the 19th century, an invention arrived that would change the form and function of cities for generations.

Like all new technologies, it started out rudimentary, expensive, and nearly ineffectual. But it caught many imaginations and developed dramatically, eventually reaching the point of mass accessibility. Soon enough, it took aim at the public realm, with consequences that were indirect and unintended yet profound.

It reconfigured streets. It influenced the height of buildings. It altered foot traffic. It recast the relationship between buildings and streets. It changed how people felt about their cities and changed their points of reference. It turned cities into abstractions and, in some ways, turned city-dwellers against each other. Its influence nearly complete by the close of World War I, the invention has remained fundamentally unchanged, and is still universally celebrated, to this day.

All this with the press of a button.

The Tragic Human Cost of Africa's New Megacities

09:30 - 24 May, 2017
The Tragic Human Cost of Africa's New Megacities, A rendering of Eko-Atlantic City, Lagos, Nigeria. Image <a href='http://www.ekoatlantic.com/media/image-gallery/'>via ekoatlantic.com</a>
A rendering of Eko-Atlantic City, Lagos, Nigeria. Image via ekoatlantic.com

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Tale of Two Cities: Unravelling the Brutal Backstory Behind Africa’s Emerging Megacities."

In the last two decades, the African narrative has changed phenomenally. The tired, age-old storyline—largely woven around the stereotypes of poverty, disease, and bloody civil wars—has been replaced with one celebrating the continent’s unprecedented economic growth and relative political stability. This new narrative is also about Africa’s gleaming skyscrapers, massive shopping malls, and ambitious “smart” cities being designed and built from scratch: Ebene Cyber City in Mauritius; Konza Technology City in Kenya; Safari City in TanzaniaLe Cite du Fleuve in DR Congo; Eko Atlantic in NigeriaAppolonia City in Ghana, and others.

There are currently at least twenty of these new cities under construction in Africa and about twice that number in the works. These developments have permanently altered the continent’s urban outlook, and have offered it something different from the bland pastiche of colonial architecture that it was once known for. As a designer, I was initially excited by the quality of some of the architecture. Though I must admit that these new cities are eerie mimicries of similar developments in China, Singapore and even the UAE, and that they’re largely bereft of any cultural connection to Africa.

10 Years On, How the Recession Has Proven Architecture's Value (And Shown Us Architects' Folly)

09:30 - 17 May, 2017
10 Years On, How the Recession Has Proven Architecture's Value (And Shown Us Architects' Folly), © <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/backkratze/3482233639/'>Flickr user backkratze</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>CC BY 2.0</a>
© Flickr user backkratze licensed under CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Building Madness: How the Boom and Bust Mentality Distorts Architecture."

Architects are economically bipolar; for us it is either the best or the worst of times. And it’s not just architects. The entire construction industry is tuned to these extremes, but only architects are psychologically validated by booms and crushed by busts. All professions have a larger source of dependency—medicine needs insurance, law needs the justice system—but the construction industry has a starker equation: building requires capital.

Contractors tend to react to market flows in purely transactional ways. Booms mean more work, more workers, more estimates, business expansion. For architects, a boom means life validation. Every architect wants to make a difference, and many want to offer salvation, like the architect Richard Rogers, who once said, “My passion and great enjoyment for architecture, and the reason the older I get the more I enjoy it is because I believe we—architects—can affect the quality of life of the people.” But salvation can only be earned if buildings are created.