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The New 'Context' in Architecture: Learning From Lebanon


Context in architecture has become a subject bloated with discussion and debate over the years. And, as a matter of fact, it has come to matter very little in its formal and typological sense. Take, for instance, the fluid forms that compose Zaha Hadid’s hundreds of projects around the world, or Frank Gehry’s exploding compositions seen from South America to the unmistakable Guggenheim in Bilbao. The form architecture takes in these cases, and countless others, is in itself a deliberate disregard towards context in its literal sense.

But is this disregard for context a mistake? Observers would often say so, though I would like to disagree. It has become frequent that projects like these, largely formal and not politely accommodating their historic surrounding, actually take greater interest in social urban issues that have a direct impact on the city dwellers. Quite simply, successful architecture today is one that serves society culturally and practically, addressing tangible problems of 21st century cities and dealing with context in a solution-oriented manner, going beyond aesthetics (whose value is only temporary) and into future-invested urbanism. Case-in-point? My hometown: Beirut, Lebanon.

The Lebanese American University Campus in Byblos. Image © Nadim AsfarThe Saint Joseph University Campus of Sports and Innovation. Image © 109 ArchitectesThe Saint Joseph University Campus of Sports and Innovation. Image © 109 ArchitectesThe Issam Faris Institute at the American University of Beirut's Historic Campus. Image © Zaha Hadid Architects. + 12

The Indicator: The Pritzker’s Better Half

There’s been a lot of buzz going around about the Pritzker jury dissing Denise Scott Brown, wife and co-partner to Robert Venturi. Back in 1991 they awarded the prize to Mr. Venturi, singular…not plural to include his better half. Seems they, a different jury, also dissed Wang Shu’s wife and co-partner, Lu Wenyu way back in 2012 by granting the prestigious prize to Mr. Wang without acknowledging who holds up “the other half of the sky”, as they say in Mandarin.

Foster’s Apple Headquarters Exceeds Budget by $2 Billion

The estimated cost of Apple’s Cupertino City headquarters has escalated from an already hefty price of $3 billion to $5 billion (more than $1,500 per square foot), reportedly pushing back the original completion date to 2016. According to Bloomberg, Apple is working with lead architect Foster & Partners to shave $1 billion from the “ballooning budget”. Most of the cost is seemly due to Steve Job’s “sky-high requirements for fit and finish”, as the tech legend called for the 2.8 million square foot, circular monolith to be clad 40-foot panes of German concave glass, along with its four-story office spaces be lined with museum-quality terrazzo floors and capped with polished concrete ceilings.

Although lambasted for his ambitious plans and “doughnut-shaped” design, Steve Jobs wanted to create a masterpiece that looked as good as it functioned, just like his products. During a 2011 presentation to the Cupertino City Council, Jobs stated, “This is not the cheapest way to build something... there is not a straight piece of glass in this building.” He continued, “We have a shot... at building the best office building in the world. I really do think that architecture students will come here to see it.”

More after the break...

Frank Gehry’s Facebook HQ Wins Approval

A new phone isn’t the only Facebook news making headlines, as the social media giant has received the green light from the Menlo Park City Council to move forward with their headquarter’s expansion on the outskirts of San Francisco Bay, California. The approved plans are a slightly toned down version of architect Frank Gehry’s original proposal, as the flamboyant butterfly-like wings which flared from each end of the 433,555-square-foot building have been removed.

“They felt some of those things were too flashy and not in keeping with the kind of the culture of Facebook, so they asked us to make it more anonymous,” stated Craig Webb, Gehry’s creative partner. "Frank (Gehry) was quite willing to tone down some of the expression of architecture in the building."

After a 4-0 vote secured approval, Mayor Peter Ohtaki asked: “Where’s the ‘Like’ button?”

More after the break...

Robert Venturi and Rem Koolhaas Side with Denise Scott Brown on Pritzker Debate

Robert Venturi has joined nearly 4,000 advocates in the call to retrospectively acknowledge Denise Scott Brown as a joint Pritzker Prize laureate, stating: “Denise Scott Brown is my inspiring and equal partner.”

His support was then quickly followed by Rem Koolhaas, who stated: “I totally support this action. The fact that one of the most creative and productive partnerships we have ever seen in architecture was separated rather than celebrated by a prize has been an embarrassing injustice which it would be great to undo.”

More updates after the break...

Steven Holl in Milan

On April 9, Steven Holl Architects is preparing to open the installation INVERSION, presented as part of Interni's Hybrid Architecture exhibition event organized on occasion of the FuoriSalone 2013, during Design Week in Milan.

Whole Foods Set to Build First Commercial-Scale Greenhouse on Brooklyn Rooftop

Whole Foods has teamed up with New York’s local organic grower, Gotham Greens, to build the first commercial-scale greenhouse attached to a supermarket in Brooklyn. The 20,000-square-foot greenhouse, expected to open this Fall, will provide locally grown produce year-round to nine Whole Foods stores in New York City area.

A Brief, Interesting History of the Otis Elevator Company

What do the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Kremlin, and the Burj Khalifa have in common? 

Elevators from the Otis Elevator Company. The company, which is celebrating its 160th anniversary today, has an interesting history: it was founded in 1853, the year Elisha Otis invented the elevator safety brake. Before Otis' invention, buildings rarely reached seven stories (elevators were considered just too dangerous to implement).

But it was Otis' elevator that would allow for the creation, and proliferation of, the skyscraper - an explosion that would for ever alter the 20th and 21st century skylines. 

Read more about the Otis Elevators influence on skyscraper design (and how Otis performed a death-defying feat to increase the invention's popularity), after the break...

AD Round Up: Flickr Part XCI

It’s time for a new Flickr Round Up! Remember you can submit your own photo here, and don’t forget to follow us through Twitter and our Facebook Fan Page to find many more features.

The main photo is the great VM Houses by BIG + JDS = PLOT and was taken by Ximo Michavila.

Photo by s_p_o_c – http://www.flickr.com/photos/barracuda666/. Used under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>Creative Commons</a>Photo by acua71 – http://www.flickr.com/photos/acua71/. Used under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>Creative Commons</a>Photo by anton soepsmuller – http://www.flickr.com/photos/35158370@N03/8188727908/. Used under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>Creative Commons</a>Photo by harayu_ – http://www.flickr.com/photos/harayu/. Used under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>Creative Commons</a>+ 5

Seen From Above: Jeffrey Milstein Captures the Art of Airport Design

Newark Liberty International Airport © Jeffrey Milstein
Newark Liberty International Airport © Jeffrey Milstein


Inspired by a childhood spent filming planes at LAX with an 8-millimeter videocamera, New York photographer and former Berkeley architecture student Jeffrey Milstein has turned his fascination for aviation into a career. Typically known for photographing the underbellies of aircrafts, Milstein's latest series captures the artistic composition and elaborate array of patterns formed by airports and only seen from above. He describes this series as revealing "the patterns, layering and complexity of cities, and the circulation patterns for travel, such as waterways, roads, and airports that grow organically over time much like a living organism."

Four Architects Enlisted to Reimagine Penn Station

In an effort to “unlock people’s imaginations” about Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) of New York has challenged Santiago Calatrava, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SHoP Architects and SOM to propose four new visions that exemplify the potential of the highly disregarded area.

The challenge comes amidst a heated debate on whether or not the city should restrict Madison Square’s recently expired special permit to 10 years, rather than in perpetuity as the arena’s owners - the Dolan family - has requested. This would allow time for the city to “get it right” and come up with a viable solution for the arena and station that would not only “improve the safety and quality of life for millions of people but also benefit the economy”. Think Kings Cross in London. With a thoughtful mix of public and private investments, the crime-ridden transfor station was transformed into a thriving cultural destination.

More after the break...

Can Architecture Make Us More Creative?

What do MIT’s Building 20, the Ancient Greek Agora, 18th Century British teahouses, and early 20th century Parisian cafés have in common?

They were some of the most creative spaces in the world.

People who gathered there would interact. People, such as Socrates or Chomsky or Edison, exchanged ideas, argued about morals, and discussed technologies. They participated in an informal discourse driven by passionate involvement.

And these places, although for different reasons, fostered interaction by bringing people together and giving them a place to talk. As Jonah Lehrer put it, “the most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.”

The question, then, is how can contemporary architecture foster the same kind of creativity?

To learn more about architecture and its role in creativity and learning, keep reading after the break.

Chicago On-Track To Break Ground On Elevated Parkway

Chicago is set to be the next U.S. city to park-ify on one of its abandoned rail-lines. First proposed back in 1997, the 2.7 mile, 13-acre Bloomingdale Trail and Park is proposed for a stretch of abandoned railway trestle dating from 1910, which has been lying unused since the turn of the century. And, even though it is already being compared to New-York's High Line, the planners are adamant that the park will be an entirely different animal to its New York cousin.

Read more about Chicago's unique proposal after the break...

WEISS / MANFREDI to Design Kent State's New, $40 Million Architecture Building

© WEISS/MANFREDI  Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism
© WEISS/MANFREDI Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism

WEISS / MANFREDI has been announced as winner of the international competition to design a new College of Architecture and Environmental Design for Kent State University in Ohio. The New York-based practice, in collaboration with the local architect of record Richard L. Bowen & Associates, was one of four national finalists selected from a competitive list of 37 applicants.

The winning proposal, dubbed the Kent State Design Loft, transforms the notion of a continuous studio loft into a three-tiered structure that opens to the city, connects to the public esplanade and surrounding landscape, and provides an abundance of creatively designed, flexible learning spaces that can be easily transformed to accommodate design crits, exhibitions and events.

“We are captivated by the potential for this project to become an innovative incubator for the arts and an internationally legible destination for the University,” said Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi.

The architect’s project description after the break…

Russia's Historic Mariinsky Theatre to Celebrate Grand Opening of Mariinsky II

On May 2, Russia’s preeminent Mariinsky Theatre will celebrate the grand opening of a new, 851,575 square foot addition on a neighboring site, just west of the company’s original 1860 theatre and 2006 concert hall, in the heart St. Petersburg. Designed by Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects, Mariinsky II will be one of the largest theatre and concert venues in the world, providing a 2000-seat auditorium, state-of-the-art production facilities, and naturally lit rehearsal rooms, along with a rooftop amphitheatre and terrace.

Without Architects, Smart Cities Just Aren't Smart

Arguably the biggest buzzword in urbanism right now is the 'Smart City'. The idea, although certainly inclusive of eco-friendly practices, has even replaced “sustainability” as the major intent of cities planning for positive future development. Smart City thinking has been used successfully in countries as diverse as Brazil, the US, the UAE, South Korea, and Scotland (Glasgow just won a £24million grant to pioneer new schemes throughout the city).

But what exactly are Smart Cities? What benefit do they bring us? And, more importantly, how can we best implement them to secure our future?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in the hands of architects.

More on the potential of Smart Cities after the break...

4 Lessons the UK Should Take from Denmark

Last week the UK's Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announced that he was commissioning a review of the country's architecture policy, to be led by Sir Terry Farrell along with a number of high profile advisors, including Thomas Heatherwick, Alison Brooks and Alain de Botton. According to Vaizey, the review, expected to be complete by the end of the year, "will be a rallying point for the profession."

In his article in The Guardian, Olly Wainwright rather hopefully questioned: "might this year-long study result in an innovative new piece of legislative guidance – perhaps along the lines of Denmark's architecture policy, introduced in 2007?" While Wainwright somewhat flatly concludes, "somehow, that seems unlikely," there's no doubt that the UK could only stand to gain from learning from Denmark's innovative policy.

So what lessons could the UK (and the world) learn from the Danes? Read on after the break...

Pritzker Responds To Denise Scott Brown Controversy

An intense gender debate has been making headlines after Denise Scott Brown called for Pritzker to “salute the notion of joint creativity” and retrospectively acknowledge her role in Robert Venturi’s 1991 Pritzker Prize during an AJ Women in Architecture luncheon in late March. Since, nearly 2,000 advocates have passionately rallied in Brown’s support by signing an online petition created by Harvard’s GSD Woman in Design Group. Among the signatures include architects Zaha Hadid, Farshid Moussavi and Hani Rashid, along with MoMA senior curator of architecture and design Paola Antonelli, architecture photographer Iwan Baan, Rice School of Architecture dean Sarah Whiting, and Berkeley College of Environmental Design dean Jennifer Wolch.

Responding to the outrage, Martha Thorne, executive director of Pritzker Prize, promised to “refer this important matter to the current jury at their next meeting”, respectfully pointing out that this presents an “unusual situation” considering each Laureate is chosen annually by a panel of independent jurors who change over the years.

Demystifying the London Airport Conundrum with Ricky Burdett

There's no denying that London's airport capacity is insufficient (to put it mildly) - not just for its current needs, but, most worryingly, for the future. Nor are architects ignorant to the situation; in the last few years we've published proposals from the likes of Foster+Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, Beckett Ravine, and Grimshaw Architects, offering their own unique perspectives on what could be done.

However, for all the proposals (some emphasizing new off-shore airports, others on bulking up infrastructure or existing facilities), it's hard to untangle what's actually being done towards making these ideas reality. To clarify the situation, and lay our doubts at rest, we spoke with Ricky Burdett, one of the commissioners of the newly created Independent Airports Commission.

In the video above, Burdett, a renowned architect and professor of Urban Studies at the LSE (who has previously served as architecural advisor for both the 2012 London Olympics and the Mayor of London, 2001-2006), explains the political situation in the UK that has been preventing action, and describes how the Independent Airports Commission has been assembled in order to help the government through this process.

More info on this controversial commission, after the break... 

Giveaway Winner: Signed copy of ‘Stadia: The Populous Design and Development Guide’

Last week, thanks to the courtesy of Populous we gave you the chance to win a signed copy of: ‘‘Stadia: The Populous Design and Development Guide". To participate, we asked you to answer the following question:

Redesigning Detroit: A New Vision for an Iconic Site

In an effort to generate innovative ideas for the re-use of one of the most important building sites in Detroit’s redeveloping downtown, Rock Ventures LLC has collaborated with Opportunity Detroit to launch the open ideas competition Redesigning Detroit: A New Vision for an Iconic Site. Entrants are challenged to create compelling visions for a new urban development on the famous 92,421 square foot Hudson's site that would play a significant role in the regeneration of downtown Detroit.

ArchDaily partners with Google for Google Nose BETA

We know a good idea when we see it. That's why as soon as we heard about Google Nose we decided to call our friends at Google and work something between both of us. Google has the power to bring you the scent of food, animals, and all sort of things. But what about buildings? That's were we come in.

Why Architects Must Lead on Sustainable Design

This article, which originally appeared on GreenBiz, is by Lance Hosey, the chief sustainability officer of the global design leader RTKL.

Sustainability leader Hunter Lovins once called the building industry "dynamically conservative — it works hard to stay in the same place."

But old habits cannot fully address new challenges. According to 350.org, fossil fuel corporations currently have in their reserves five times the amount of carbon that, if burned too quickly, may raise atmospheric temperatures to a catastrophic level where Hurricane Sandy-scale storms could become the norm. Quicker, deeper progress is imperative.

Architecture is an essential arena for sustainable innovation. Buildings represent about half the annual energy and emissions in the U.S. and three-quarters of its electricity. With the built environment growing — the U.S. building stock increases by about 3 billion square feet every year — architects have a historic opportunity to transform its impact for the better.

Keep reading to find out the 6 Steps architects can take to transform the profession, after the break...

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© Toshiyuki Yano
© Toshiyuki Yano

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