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Common Edge

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer: "To Understand a Building, Go There, Open your Eyes, and Look!"

09:30 - 8 August, 2018
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer: "To Understand a Building, Go There, Open your Eyes, and Look!" , © Nina Vidic, via ELEMENTAL. ImageUC Innovation Center / ELEMENTAL
© Nina Vidic, via ELEMENTAL. ImageUC Innovation Center / ELEMENTAL

Six years ago Susan Szenasy and I had the honor of interviewing Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer for Metropolis magazine. While he was a federal appeals judge in Boston, Breyer played a key role in shepherding the design and construction of the John Joseph Moakley United State Courthouse, designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. In 2011 Justice Breyer joined the jury of the Pritzker Prize. Given his long involvement with architecture, I thought it would be fun to catch up with him. So, on the final day of court before breaking for the summer recess, I talked to Justice Breyer about his experience as a design client, how to create good government buildings, and why public architecture matters.

Will Architecture in the Future Be a Luxury Service?

09:30 - 2 August, 2018
Will Architecture in the Future Be a Luxury Service?, Oculus / Santiago Calatrava. Image © Photo by gdtography from Pexels
Oculus / Santiago Calatrava. Image © Photo by gdtography from Pexels

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "In the Era of Artificial Intelligence, Will Architecture Become Artisanal?"

Like food and clothing, buildings are essential. Every building, even the most rudimentary, needs a design to be constructed. Architecture is as central to building as farming is to food, and in this era of rapidly advancing technological change farming may offer us valuable lessons.

At last census count there were 233,000 architects in the United States; the 113,000 who are currently licensed represent a 3% increase from last year. In addition there’s a record number of designers who qualify for licensure: more than 5,000 this year, almost the same number as graduates with professional degrees. There is now 1-architect-for-every-2,900 people in the US. A bumper crop, right?

The Failed Mexican Earthquake Memorial That Shows Protest Can Still Shape the Urban Environment

09:30 - 25 July, 2018
The proposed memorial to earthquake victims in Mexico City met with fierce resistance from residents who felt authorities had not done enough for the people left homeless by the tragedy. Image via Common Edge
The proposed memorial to earthquake victims in Mexico City met with fierce resistance from residents who felt authorities had not done enough for the people left homeless by the tragedy. Image via Common Edge

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Letter From Mexico City: An Insidious Memorial to a Still-Unfolding Tragedy."

You wouldn’t think it looking at Mexico City today—a densely populated metropolis, where empty space is hard to come by—but decades earlier, following a devastating earthquake on September 19, 1985, more than 400 buildings collapsed, leaving a collection of open wounds spread over the cityscape.

Exactly thirty-two years later, the anniversary of that disaster was ominously commemorated with an emergency evacuation drill. Then, in one of those odd occurrences in which reality proves to be stranger than fiction, a sudden jolt scarcely two hours after the drill led to what would be yet another of the deadliest earthquakes in the city’s history. Buildings once again collapsed, leaving a rising-by-the-hour death toll that eventually reached 361, as well as swarms of bewildered citizens wandering the streets, frantically attempting to reach their loved ones through the weakened cell phone reception. “We’d just evacuated for the drill,” people said, like a collective mantra. “How could this happen again?”

Opinion: The Chilean Pavilion Offers the 2018 Venice Biennale's Most Powerful Architectural Statement

09:30 - 24 June, 2018
Opinion: The Chilean Pavilion Offers the 2018 Venice Biennale's Most Powerful Architectural Statement, © Laurian Ghinitoiu
© Laurian Ghinitoiu

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "STADIUM: the Venice Biennale’s Most Powerful Architectural Statement."

The opening of the Venice Biennale has about it a general sense of raucousness and aesthetic cacophony. The entire scene is lush, almost overwhelmingly rich. There are thousands of places for eyes to land. There are outfits: the salty, wet Venice air manages to get at least a few architects to ditch the all-black outfit for its all-white summer counterpart, often cut through with brightly colored, geometric jewelry. There are events: at any given moment, at any point throughout the weekend, there’s a dozen or so architects gathered on a panel to talk about a topic relevant to a pavilion theme, or the edition theme, or to architecture generally. There are parties, picnics along canals, Aperol spritzes that glow bright orange, and designed-to-death tote bags that run out so quickly just carrying them is a sign that you were there, part of the early crowd, in the mix.

It’s all swirling and chaotic and bright and somehow you have to manage to pay attention to serious ideas about architecture while attempting to figure out how it’s possible that you’re still sweating even though it’s 4PM.

How Can We Fix the Architecture Crit? First, Ask for Evidence

09:30 - 18 June, 2018
How Can We Fix the Architecture Crit? First, Ask for Evidence, © Andrea Vasquez
© Andrea Vasquez

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "To Fix Architecture, Fix the Design Crit."

In architecture, the act of formally critiquing design is ubiquitous. The crit, as its called, is almost a rite of passage. And while the format of this practice is universal, its objective, goals and ultimate purpose are unfixed, beyond a broad and often vague imperative to make a given design better. This is a problem, because it leaves a foundation of the profession to take the form of whatever discussion happens to arise between a designer and a critic. If the expectation of empirical evidence for design decisions were introduced as the basis of a design crit, the cumulative effects of this change could improve the credibility of the entire discipline.

The "Four Pillars" of B.V. Doshi: Why All Architects Can Learn From the 2018 Pritzker Laureate

09:30 - 16 May, 2018
The "Four Pillars" of B.V. Doshi: Why All Architects Can Learn From the 2018 Pritzker Laureate, CEPT. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu
CEPT. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "The Genius, Heart and Humility of Indian Architect B.V. Doshi."

I’m sitting in a busy suburban coffee-and-donut shop with the quiet, grandfatherly Indian architect, Jitendra Vaidya. When I started my life as an architecture intern in the late 90s, Jitendra was one of the most experienced technical designers I knew. Equally comfortable weighing the relative merits of various flashing details as he is discussing abstract design concepts, Jitendra is an old-school, universal architect. After more than half a century in a profession famous for grinding deadlines, Jitendra still maintains a joyful twinkle in his eye when he talks about architecture. So it’s no surprise that Jitendra is visibly animated today as he tells me about his teacher, the man who was just recognized as one of the world’s greatest living architects, B.V. Doshi.

For the Pritzker Prize—the profession’s highest honor—to be awarded to a 90-year-old academic urbanist who spent his long career primarily teaching architecture students and serving poor communities in India is a stunning development. To be fair, the caricature of Pritzker winners as arrogant, scarf- wrapped, Euro-American, Starchitects, is overblown and outdated. Recent winners such as Alejandro Aravena, Wang Shu, and Shigeru Ban, are connected in their mutual dedication to serving poor and displaced communities through innovative, culturally authentic designs. But even accepting this nuance, Doshi is fundamentally different from recent winners.

Good Architecture Is Not Produced by Rejecting History—Or by Replicating it, Either

09:30 - 3 May, 2018
Good Architecture Is Not Produced by Rejecting History—Or by Replicating it, Either, Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin For Paris, and one of Yale’s new neoclassical residential colleges, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Imageleft: © <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plan_Voisin_model.jpg'>Wikimedia user SiefkinDR</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en'>CC BY-SA 4.0</a>; right: via Common Edge
Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin For Paris, and one of Yale’s new neoclassical residential colleges, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Imageleft: © Wikimedia user SiefkinDR licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; right: via Common Edge

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Architecture Ignores History At Its Own Peril."

Gravity is undeniable. We stand, lift packages, wince when we see our weight on the scale. For architects, gravity has special meaning: it is the essential force to be dealt with. Weather, energy, materials all matter too—but those all have local realities specific to their location.

Gravity is the forever constant. But there is another universal element in design: history, the role of what has passed from idea to reality in all things, everywhere. Whether there are “reasons” for a building being formed or finished in a certain way, the undeniable lens of history is always part of how designers think about what’s to be built.

Dear Internet: Stop Placing Blame for Gentrification on an Architectural Style

09:30 - 26 April, 2018
Dear Internet: Stop Placing Blame for Gentrification on an Architectural Style, The AVA Ballard, market rate apartments in Seattle, Washington. Image © <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seattle_-_AVA_(building)_05.jpg'>Wikimedia user Joe Mabel</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en'>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>
The AVA Ballard, market rate apartments in Seattle, Washington. Image © Wikimedia user Joe Mabel licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Architecture, Aesthetic Moralism, and the Crisis of Urban Housing."

It may shock some people to hear this, but architecture is not urban planning. It is not transportation planning, sociology, political science, or critical geography. However, architecture, new-build apartment architecture specifically, has become a social media scapegoat for today’s urban housing crisis: escalating developer-driven gentrification.

Out of my own curiosity, I searched several academic databases for research that successfully correlates the architectural aesthetic of new build apartments with gentrification. While many writers and denizens of social media really want to blame today’s bland, boxy, cladding-driven style of multifamily urban housing for gentrification, I’m afraid the research isn’t there. In fact, one study featured in a paper on neighborhood early warning systems for gentrification cites historic architecture as one of five predictors of gentrification in the DC area.

Growing Up in a Glass House: What Is it Like to Be the Daughter of an Uncompromising Modernist Architect?

09:30 - 19 April, 2018
Growing Up in a Glass House: What Is it Like to Be the Daughter of an Uncompromising Modernist Architect?, Courtesy of Elizabeth W Garber
Courtesy of Elizabeth W Garber

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Growing Up in a Glass House: An Architect’s Daughter Explores Modernism’s Shadow."

Elizabeth W Garber’s new book, Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (She Writes Press), tells the story of growing up in a glass house, designed by her father, Woodie Garber, once called “Cincinnati’s most extreme, experimental, and creative Modernist architect.” The memoir, which will be released in June, focuses on a family caught in a collision between modern architecture, radical social change, and madness in the turbulent 1960s in Cincinnati. Recently I talked to Garber about the book, the strictures of Modernism, and why she couldn’t live in a glass house today.

Why We Shouldn't Build a Memorial for the Grenfell Fire—Not Yet At Least

04:00 - 18 April, 2018
Why We Shouldn't Build a Memorial for the Grenfell Fire—Not Yet At Least , The burned remains of Grenfell Tower in London. Image © <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/londonmatt/35651730645'>Flickr user londonmatt</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>CC BY 2.0</a>
The burned remains of Grenfell Tower in London. Image © Flickr user londonmatt licensed under CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Why the Best Response to the Grenfell Tower Fire Isn’t a Memorial."

Memorials play an integral role in marking significant people, moments, or events. In recent years, they have become glorifications of tragedy by attempting to express unimaginable horrors in poetic and beautiful ways. The issue with the many forms that memorials take is that they seek to placate the immediate reaction and hurt of an event, an understandable societal reaction, but one that often feels rote and hallow.

But what if memorials sought to preserve the memory of those affected by offering a solution that addressed how the tragedy occurred? The international response to tragedy has, by default, become to install a statue, build a wall, create a healing water feature, erect an aspirational sculptural object, or simply rename a park. None of these responses are inherently bad—they’re usually well-meaning and on occasion quite moving—but there is another approach available to us: changing the public perception of memorials by looking at them through the lens of solutions, encouraging people to think of them as a testament or proper response to tragedy, not just a plaque that over time goes unnoticed. While this approach might be difficult in some instances, the case of Grenfell Tower fire in London presents a rather obvious solution.

Why Designing a Person's Home is the Most Challenging, Thrilling Task an Architect Can Face

09:30 - 3 April, 2018
Why Designing a Person's Home is the Most Challenging, Thrilling Task an Architect Can Face, <a href='https://www.archdaily.com/874409/caring-wood-macdonald-wright-architects'>Caring Wood / James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell</a>. Image © James Morris
Caring Wood / James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell. Image © James Morris

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Why Homes Are the Original Architecture."

Homes may be the most powerful projection of architectural value. Because shelter is essential for all of us, the home is architecture’s universal function. We’re all experts on what our own home must be, to us.

But architects often have a different view of home. Twenty years ago—during the recession before the last recession—I remember hearing an architect declare that he could earn a living designing houses until “real work came along.” Another architectural meme is the classic first job: designing a house for your parents.

Awareness of the Importance of Public Spaces is Increasing—Here's How We Can Capitalize On It

09:30 - 21 March, 2018
Awareness of the Importance of Public Spaces is Increasing—Here's How We Can Capitalize On It, Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy. Image © <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/liakadaweb/38621551301/'>Flickr user liakadaweb</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>CC BY 2.0</a>
Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy. Image © Flickr user liakadaweb licensed under CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "How Public Space Can Build Community and Rescue Democracy."

Public spaces are having a moment. People from outside the field of urban planning are beginning to notice the vital contributions that they make to our quality of life: inserting nature and cultural memory into the everyday, reminding us of our collective responsibilities, supporting democratic expression. People are also beginning to notice the subtle ways in which those contributions are being eroded by threats of privatization, corporate appropriation, and apathy.

Most acutely, this moment is brought to us by Apple, which has begun an aggressive retail rebranding effort to re-conceptualize its stores as “town squares,” and wrought a wave of well-founded concern. Technology continues to beckon us away from the need to leave our homes or interact face-to-face with other humans. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, it would follow that opportunities for such interpersonal interaction become a luxury we begin to seek, a call to remember our origin as social beings.

Gentrification, Alienation, and Homelessness: What Really Happens When Amazon Moves to Town?

09:30 - 6 March, 2018
© <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/sounderbruce/28364849979/'>Flickr user sounderbruce</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
© Flickr user sounderbruce licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "A Seattleite Reflects on the City in the Age of Amazon."

At first, it was just a crane or two, a little urban renewal down on Westlake, a rumor that Paul Allen was cleaning things up, wanted a huge park with bike trails. I thought that might be nice and didn’t think about it again for a while.

No park happened, but one day I went down to the new Whole Foods below where I work and noticed that a whole habitat had sprung up on Westlake, an expensive Mexican chain restaurant and an expensive Italian place and an expensive Thai place, and some expensive after-work bars. I also noticed small groups of men, all white or Indian and all wearing lanyards. These groups moved around the streets, talking animatedly, freshly out of their cubicles and going to lunch, oblivious to whomever else was on the street.

The Beautiful Drawings of Michelangelo Show Us Why Architects Should Be Polymaths, Not Specialists

09:30 - 27 February, 2018
The Beautiful Drawings of Michelangelo Show Us Why Architects Should Be Polymaths, Not Specialists, © Duo Dickinson
© Duo Dickinson

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Michelangelo’s Lesson: Specialization in Architecture is Not The Only Way."

A recent exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, provided a thrilling glimpse into the mind and methods of a true polymath. The exhibit has just closed, so I offer this selection of images. Photography was encouraged, and the intimacy of the presentation allowed insights and realizations.

I’ve been studying or practicing architecture for 45 years, and the exhibit clarified how architects can think about what they do. It probably meant similar things to everyone feeling its resonant beauty, but I saw the complexities of a creative life in mid-application.

Why African Vernacular Architecture Is Overdue for a Renaissance

09:30 - 20 February, 2018
The Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali. Image © <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Djenne_great_mud_mosque.jpg'>Wikimedia user Ruud Zwart</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/nl/deed.en'>CC BY-SA 2.5 NL</a>
The Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali. Image © Wikimedia user Ruud Zwart licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 NL

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Making a Case for the Renaissance of Traditional African Architecture."

Last September, Nigerian Afrobeat musician Wizkid played to a sold-out house at the Royal Albert Hall in London, joining a growing list of illustrious African musicians, such as Selif Kaita, Youssou Ndour, Miriam Makeba and others, that have performed at that prestigious venue. This event affirmed the unfolding cultural renaissance across the continent, but it also signified the rising global influence of African music, movies, fashion, cuisine and the arts.

Sadly, traditional African architecture, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, has not profited from this renaissance and has instead steadily lost its appeal across the continent. In spite of its towering influence in the pre-colonial era, it has largely failed to develop beyond the crude earthen walls and thatch roof architecture; for this reason it has remained unattractive to homeowners who often associate it with poverty. Consequently, the neglect of indigenous architecture has resulted in the dearth of skilled craftsmen knowledgeable in the art of traditional building, a reality that has further dimmed hopes for a revival of this architectural style.

Is Architecture Too Interdisciplinary? Or, Why Architects Need to Start Talking About Architecture

09:30 - 14 February, 2018
The Pantheon in Rome. Image © <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/80038275@N00/14984463972'>Flickr user Michael Vadon</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>CC BY 2.0</a>
The Pantheon in Rome. Image © Flickr user Michael Vadon licensed under CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Buildings."

One of the last programs I attended as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial was a panel titled “Making/Writing/Teaching Contested Histories” at the Chicago Cultural Center. The panel, organized by the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (FAAC), aimed to “foreground issues of class, race, and gender, interrogating how they partake in the production of the built environment.”

The panelists, all academics in fields related to the built environment, were asked to bring in an object central to their practice or their teaching method. The objects on display were a painting, a pier, a refugee camp, and a living room.

Three or four decades ago, this array would’ve scandalized an audience of architects and architectural scholars, who might’ve been expecting, I don’t know, a photo of the Pantheon, or a plan of it, or even a piece of wood or a brick. Maybe even the choice of a piece of furniture would’ve induced some surprised gasps or confused looks.

Architectural Education: Is It Actually Preparing Our Students for the Future?

09:30 - 3 February, 2018
Architectural Education: Is It Actually Preparing Our Students for the Future?, © <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arch_classroom.jpg'> Auburn University College of Architecture Archives</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en'>CC BY-SA 4.0</a>
© Auburn University College of Architecture Archives licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The issue of how we educate our architects of the future is a divisive one. With the capabilities of our technology advancing rapidly, new mediums of Virtual Reality, robotics, and artificial intelligence are all changing the architectural profession at a fundamental level. This creates the question of whether architectural pedagogy is keeping up with the times and educating students to be ready for both professional practice and an uncertain future.

In his opinion piece for Common Edge, ‘Architectural Education is Changing: Let’s Hope the Profession Can Keep Up’, Phil Bernstein articulates his belief that architectural education today is indeed teaching students the necessary skills, but rather than focusing on simply teaching them to become competent workers, it is teaching them skills to design for the future.

9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment to Consider in Order to Improve Communities, Not Gentrify Them

09:30 - 30 January, 2018
9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment to Consider in Order to Improve Communities, Not Gentrify Them, The Stony Island Arts Bank was originally designed by William Gibbons Uffendell and constructed in 1923 as a community savings and loan. The refurbishment was launched by the Rebuild Foundation under the direction of artist Theaster Gates. Image Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation
The Stony Island Arts Bank was originally designed by William Gibbons Uffendell and constructed in 1923 as a community savings and loan. The refurbishment was launched by the Rebuild Foundation under the direction of artist Theaster Gates. Image Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

A version of this article was originally published by Common Edge as "The Principles of Ethical Redevelopment."

Where does creativity live? Can the highest level of cultural production come from down the street? What does it mean to be a good neighbor, a good steward? How does that look when there are so many forces at work keeping people isolated? How do you see value in what others discard? Can we learn to talk about moments of success in our struggling neighborhoods, not as random and magical, but as sophisticated flexibility? What is civic empathy?

These are some of the questions Place Lab, a University of Chicago partnership between Arts + Public Life and the Harris School for Public Policy, explored in an exercise last year conducted with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: it’s the articulation of a set of nine principles collectively called Ethical Redevelopment.