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Duo Dickinson

A building architect who writes.


The Religion of the City: Cars, Mass Transit and Coronavirus

Religion is a uniquely human reality. As are cities. As we emerge from our burrows of sequestration, the silent cities and places of worship will become human again, versus the present sad memory of what they once were.

We will recover from another human reality, the pandemic and when we do we will be forced to address some questions. Before this century, the automobile was once seen as the way Americans could create a new reality: a huge middle class that could control its life by using the freedom that cars gave them to go where they wanted, when they wanted, and to live where they wanted. Before this latest change of sequestration, that vision of what cars meant to our culture was changing —especially in cities.

“Make It Right” Goes Wrong in New Orleans

Some celebrate the failures of "Make It Right", Brad Pitt’s patronage in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans in 2005, celebrated architects like Frank Gehry, David Adjaye and Thom Mayne created art for a foundation set up by Pitt. A local architect, John C. Williams was hired to turn designs from those starchitects into buildings with a directive to use the best sustainable materials available.

Are Cities Over? Not So Fast

When things change, we change the way we live.

Questioning where we live, even in an era of telecommuting, Zoom education and mass transit avoidance, is a complicated, high-risk endeavor. Houses are unique. Whether we rent or own, for most people where we live consumes the greatest amount of money we make.

Covid-19 Has Raised the Question: Why Do We Design Buildings?

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The pandemic has force-fed change into almost every aspect of our lives. What does that mean for architecture? I have been in my office 135 out of the 140 days since Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont declared “construction” (and all its constituent trades, including “design”) essential. For two months I was alone, then one employee for a day or two a month, then others, eventually all, but most still working from home. The office continued to function.

Christopher Alexander is Building a Legacy in Beauty

Architectural Education is still largely living in the mid-20th century, where the studio model is both wonderful, limited and alive and well. Students are offered two stark pedagogies: either getting a fine arts education or applying a glorified trade school regimen towards being a technocrat. Artificial Intelligence (AI) might just eliminate architecture as a career for those who are not versed in the things that only humans can do: synthesize, channel, invent, craft. Beyond imitation. By its new nature, architecture could be becoming inhuman.

Swamp Yankee Architect: Recycling as a Lifestyle

Whether we like it or not, every architect is a recycler.

The phrase “Swamp Yankee” is neither a diss nor a stereotype. Swamp Yankees lived in pre-20th-century New England. They were those poor folk who could only afford to live near water – where disease, vermin and bad weather regularly wrecked lives. Those folk never threw anything out that could be reused (someday). They bartered and they salvaged as a way of life. There was never waste (“waste not, want not”). Swamp Yankees made recycling a lifestyle. Sustainability was not a Green choice – it was the way they survived.

I am a Swamp Yankee Architect. 

Vegan House / Block Architects. Recycled windows. © Quang TranNaju Art Museum / Hyunje Joo. Recycled semi-transparent plastic baskets. Courtesy of MAPCapilla San Bernardo / Nicolás Campodonico. Recycled bricks from a rural house. Courtesy of Nicolás CampodonicoKamikatz Public House / Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP. Recycled windows from abandoned houses. © Nacasa and Partners Inc+ 15

What Is Sacred Space?

We are in an unholy mess. It is a pandemic, with insane politics, and centuries of hideous racial injustice screaming out humanity’s worst realities.  Each day reveals more disease, more anger, more flaws in our culture than anyone could have anticipated.

This season’s inscrutable fears are uniquely human. The natural world flourishes amid our disasters. But architecture is uniquely human, too.  Architecture’s Prime Directive is to offer up safety. So in this time of danger, it is a good idea to think about the flip side of so much profane injustice and cruelty, Sacred Space? Architecture can go beyond playing it safe and aspire to evoke the best of us, making places that touch what can only be defined as Sacred.

What is Sacred Space? Whether human-made or springing from the natural world, Sacred Space connects us to a reality that transcends our fears. The ocean, the forest, the rising or setting sun may all define “Sacred”. But humans can make places that hold and extend the best in us beyond the world that inevitably threatens and saddens us. Architecture can create places where we feel part of a Sacred reality.

 Lutheran Church of Madison, Ct., 2008, Duo Dickinson, architect. Photo courtesy of Duo DickinsonTemple Beth Tikvah, Madison. Photo Courtesy of Duo DickinsonFritz Hoger’s Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz in Berlin,1933. Image © Fabrice Fouillet.Ribbon Chapel / Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP. © Koji Fujii / Nacasa & Partners Inc+ 10

Architecture's Vernacular In A Post-COVID-19 World

As the Great Philosopher, Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.  

The COVID-19 pandemic will deeply impact the world of aesthetics. For the first time since League of Nations was founded, a future of universal aesthetics may cease to be the academically sanctioned Architectural Canon. As Markus Breitschmid defines it, in his article “In Defense of the Validity of the 'Canon' in Architecture,” the Canon in Architecture is a way to divorce architecture from the rest of the world:

Mexico. Photograph courtesy of House + House ArchitectsOklahoma. Photo courtesy of Clay ChapmanTexas © William AbranowiczRhode Island, Estes Twombly Architects, © Warren Jagger+ 11

Architectural Heroes Aren’t Only of the Past

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Every field has its heroes. In architecture, heroic designers have often been celebrated both for their skills and as public personalities. Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn were icons in the 20th century. In the 21st, Zaha Hadid was as bold and evocative as her buildings, and she became a “starchitect” (to use the industry-specific parlance), her untimely death further elevating her to what-might-have-been status. But heroes are only human, and their deaths do not automatically convey a permanent place in the pantheon. They do, however, allow for a fresh perspective on the living.

Are We Air Conditioning our Planet to Death?

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

This summer the federal government released an astonishing statistic: 87% of American homes are now equipped with air conditioning. Since the world is getting undeniably warmer, I suppose this isn’t all that surprising, but keep in mind that robust number of mechanically cooled homes include residences in some fairly temperate climates. So my question is a simple one: When did air conditioning in the U.S. became a requirement, rather than an add-on? 

The Two Most Dangerous Words In Architecture: Style and Beauty

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

"I hate this whole ‘beauty’ thing,” says a deeply talented architect and professor friend, reacting to an emerging ripple in the zeitgeist. He is not alone. Words are dangerous things. Since World War II, there has been a consensus mainstream in architecture: the Modernist canon. But change is coming in the profession—and in our culture.

The true believers cringe at the word “beauty” as a design criterion. They dismiss the word “style,” too. Like all orthodoxies, there is simply “right” and “wrong.” The realities of the “wrong” are writ large in architectural orthodoxy: “wrong” is anything allusive to anything but that canon itself. Closed-loop rationalization gives comfort to the convicted.

Opinion: In Architecture, Silence Is Anything But Golden

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Architects compete, and the internet provides unlimited opportunities for competition among all who wish to offer up something for consideration. None of this is news. But there’s been a change in both the expectations and the etiquette around all of those offerings.

Earlier this month, I was asked to submit to two small competitions. I had completed successful projects that matched each competition’s focus, so I dove in. We confirmed that our entries met the criteria and deadlines; we knew the day of jury deliberations and the release date of their decision. As usual, we lost (success only comes for those willing to accept failure); also, as usual, the verdict for us and for all other runners up was silence.

Hudson Yards and Notre-Dame: A One-Two Punch of Megalomania

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In recent months, two events have done more harm to the “brand” of architecture in the public’s perception than anything I’ve experienced in the 40 years that I have been in the profession.

First, there was the grand opening of New York City’s Hudson Yards, a massive $20 billion development on Manhattan’s far west side. This first phase opened after seven years of construction and included an obligatory gathering of “world class” architects—Kohn Pedersen Fox, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SOM, The Rockwell Group—as well a folly by designer Thomas Heatherwick.

What could possibly go wrong?

Architecture without Architects: The Cut-Paste Typology Taking Over America

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "When Buildings Are Shaped More by Code than by Architects."

Architects are often driven by forces which are stronger than aesthetics or even client whims and desires. To some extent we’re captive to the tools and materials we use, and the legal limitations placed on us as architects. Today a new code definition has changed one type of building in all of the ways architects usually control.

10 Years Post-Recession, a Resilient Generation Makes Practice Work for Them

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "The Kids are Alright."

Economics and technology affect every profession. But since World War II perhaps no profession has experienced more technological change than architecture. These shifts occurred, paradoxically, within a well-established professional model of personal development: The guild structure of learning in the academy, then becoming professional via internship leading to licensure, has been the structure of practice for almost two centuries.

Once upon a time manual drafting with graphite or ink was applied by white males, and a single sheet master was reproduced with typed specifications added, and buildings were constructed.

That world no longer exists.