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Urban Design Keys to Achieving Real Authenticity: 12 Principles

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Authenticity seems impossible today, with places and the buildings in them assembled with products from the Industrial Development Complex that could be assembled almost anywhere else on Earth in a debauchery of placelessness, disharmony with nature, and meaninglessness that doesn’t age well. So how is authenticity in the built environment achieved?

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Blair Kamin: ‘Who Is the City For?’

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Blair Kamin stepped down as architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune in January 2021, after a nearly 30-year run in the post. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for a body of work highlighted by a series on Chicago’s lakefront, including a story that documented the race- and class-based disparity between the city’s north and south lakefronts. He has previously published two collections of his work: Why Architecture Matters (2001) and Terror and Wonder (2010), both from the University of Chicago Press. His third collection, Who is the City For? Architecture, Equity, and the Public Realm in Chicago, was released last week. Recently I talked to Kamin about the new book, the state of post-pandemic Chicago, and the need for more mainstream architecture criticism. I will post the second of our conversations tomorrow, in which the critic pushes the need for a redefinition of the phrase “design equity.”

Nigeria’s Ambitious Climate Agenda and Its Misplaced Fixation on Carbon Footprint

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

A few days ago, the world gathered at Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, for its annual climate change summit: COP27. Like the rest of Africa, Nigeria is represented by its retinue of bureaucrats, climate advocates, and other interest groups. Since the last meeting in Scotland (COP26), Nigeria signed the Climate Change Act into law, setting a target of attaining net-zero greenhouse gas emissions between 2050 and 2070. In the interim, Nigeria has developed an ambitious energy plan that would see it transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, using its vast reserve of natural gas as a hedge. The country is at the forefront of the African Carbon Markets Initiative and plans to raise at least $500 million from carbon crediting trading to offset emitted carbon.

Theodore Prudon: ‘Modernism Has Never Been a Popular Movement’

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Theodore Prudon, the founding president of Docomomo US, recently stepped down as the organization’s head. (Robert Meckfessel is the new president.) “Docomomo” is shorthand for the group’s mission: the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the Modern movement. Prudon has had a storied career as a preservationist, architect, and educator, heading his own practice and teaching at Columbia University. In October, he was presented with the Connecticut Architecture Foundation’s Distinguished Leadership Award at the newly reborn Marcel Breuer building in New Haven, which began its life in 1970 as the Pirelli Tire Building and is now the Hotel Marcel (designed, planned, and developed by architect Bruce Redman Becker).

Sometimes, the Better Alternative Is Not to Build New Things

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

My first encounter with saving a building landed me in handcuffs and a trip to the Long Beach Police Department. A friend and I were frustrated that our hometown was demolishing good buildings—because they did not conform with the current style of architecture—only to replace them with parking lots! All in the name of “progress.” In 1988, when we learned that the Jergins Trust Building, a Beaux-Arts beauty, was slated to be torn down with no plans for the site, we jumped into action and chained ourselves to the building to stop the wrecking crew. Our efforts kept it up for another four hours. And then it was gone forever.

Activating the Edges: How to Create Lively, Active Streets

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

A famous skyline can evoke rich associations and unleash imagination, but the real experience of a city is in its streets. Early humans evolved to see the first 20 feet in front, above, and around them so they could identify potential threats in the landscape. In our modern urban environment, this is still how we experience buildings and places. While aerial views and Google Earth imagery are useful for reference, the main experience of the outside of a building is what we pass by on the street, up to about the second or third story. The height of a building doesn’t necessarily matter if the street experience is rich and accessible. 

When Architectural History Meets Personal History

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Writer Eva Hagberg and I have known each other for a long time. Way back, in a year I can’t remember, I assigned her one of her first magazine assignments. Literally, dozens of other assignments followed. So it was with some anticipation, and a bit of surprise, that I received her new book When Eero Met His Match: Aline Louchheim Saarinen and the Making of an Architect (Princeton University Press), an intriguing hybrid text, one-part Aline and Eero biography, one part memoir of Hagberg’s experiences as a design writer and publicist. (I am briefly mentioned in the book.) The book’s main argument is that Aline Saarinen largely invented the role of the architectural publicist. Recently I traveled out to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to talk to a very pregnant Eva about the impetus for her new book, its dual structure, and the journalistic ethics of Aline Saarinen.

How to Create Real Housing Affordability, With Dignity

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The U.S. housing shortage is most severe on the more affordable side of the market. At a time when costs are escalating broadly and homes that were recently attainable by many have moved out of reach of most, this is no surprise. The problem is most acute in the heated markets, of course, where affordability mandates and rent controls seek to retain rental affordability for some, as owning a home in such markets is a dream accessible only to the wealthiest. (No measures in this post have any impact on these markets.)

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“I Felt It Was the Right Thing To Do”

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Architecture firms don’t usually make labor history, but it happened earlier this month when employees at Bernheimer Architecture agreed to form a union. It is a first for the industry and comes six months after an unsuccessful attempt to unionize at SHoP. The initiative was done through the auspices of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in collaboration with Architectural Workers United (AWU), a grass-roots organizing group. Whether this leads to other successful efforts remains to be seen, but it is clearly a step forward for labor in the architecture sector. According to Curbed, AWU is “currently in talks with up to ten other firms across New York.”

James Stewart Polshek: Reflections on a Life in Architecture

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Jim Polshek, who died at 92 last week, was an award-winning architect (AIA Gold Medal, 2018), designer, public advocate, and educator (architecture dean at Columbia, 1973–1987). He was a Midwesterner, born in Akron, Ohio, who went on to open his own practice in 1963, when he founded James Stewart Polshek Architects. Ultimately, the practice became internationally recognized as Polshek Partnership Architects. In 2010, the partners renamed the firm Ennead Architects, and he remained involved as a design consultant.

It’s Time to Be Honest About the Impending Costs of Climate Change

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The passage of the Biden Administration’s climate change package, the so-called “Inflation Reduction Act,” has predictably split along partisan lines, with Republicans characterizing the bill as an act of reckless government spending, certain to raise taxes and fuel further inflation. But does this act really represent reckless spending? The legislation authorizes $430 billion in spending, the bulk of which—more than $300 billion—is earmarked for tax credits; other spending, and initiatives aimed at stimulating the clean energy economy; and reducing carbon emissions. (The bill also allows Medicare to negotiate prices with drug companies for certain expensive drugs.) The bill is funded in part by a 15% minimum tax on large corporations and an excise tax on companies that repurchase shares of their own stock. Given the scope of the problem, and the escalating future costs of climate inaction, this legislation is an exceedingly modest, but very necessary, first step.

15 Years Later and What Do You Get? A Lot More Cars and a Planet in Flames

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing for Manhattan. The state legislature rejected the plan. Fifteen years later, we’re still debating the idea, fiddling while the planet burns.

The newest problem is that a new environmental study and traffic model from the MTA, The Central Business District Tolling Program Environmental Assessment, says that what’s good for 1.63 million residents of Manhattan and the planet, in general, will increase the pollution in the already unhealthy air in the Bronx. Yes, that’s a problem. Turning the perfect into the enemy of the good is also a problem. We need a plan that benefits all.

The Global City and the (de)Evolution of the Public Realm

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In October 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions, thousands of people in Australia and in many other cities in the world started to occupy public spaces. In Sydney, where I live, this occupation took place in Martin Place, appropriately enough right outside the Reserve Bank of Australia. This widely publicized protest was an attempt to promote a pro-democracy, civil liberty, social justice message, and to protest against corporate greed and economic inequality.

All of which begged a central question: Was it an occupation of our public space, or was it a reclamation of our public space from governmental and corporate dominance?

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18 Ways to Make Architecture Matter

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Was there ever a time when architects felt properly valued? Probably not. Certainly not since the profession became dependent on the business of America, which is business. With economic growth as the country’s prime directive through the 20th century, architects—as members of the construction industry—played their part. How? By designing buildings of all kinds that were lighter, cheaper, and quicker to erect. Architects’ values might have been social, artistic, even cosmic, but their value to society has been primarily economic.

How Design Can Help Ensure All Communities Benefit From Climate Adaptation

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has never been greater, and getting there is going to require bold steps for buildings, infrastructure, and communities. Incremental reductions are not enough; we need to focus on full decarbonization, which means removing carbon emissions caused by our built environment. 

These big changes in the way energy is generated and used will raise important questions about who benefits and who pays. Technology-focused incentive programs can wind up leaving our most vulnerable communities behind, exacerbating a legacy of underinvestment and health disparities, while also failing to reach the essential goals of a complete energy transition. Instead, we need holistic solutions that put disadvantaged communities first and transition buildings that would otherwise be left out, leading to bottom-up market transformation that benefits everyone. 

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In London, a Venturi-Scott Brown Masterpiece Is Threatened

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London National Gallery. Image via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Despite its dazzling collection of masterpieces, London’s National Gallery has been cursed with a series of ill-advised architectural schemes over its two-century existence. Only once have its leaders made a truly inspired and visionary choice: in the mid-1980s, the gallery held a competition, won by Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown (VRSB) of Philadelphia, to build a special collections building.

The addition was constructed from 1988 to 1991, using funds donated by the Sainsbury family as a gift to the nation and was immediately hailed as one of the finest buildings of its type erected in the 20th century. It has remained popular with Londoners and has served well as an expansion of William Wilkins’s undistinguished classical building ever since. Experts on the work of Robert Venturi, John Rauch, and Denise Scott Brown consider it one of their masterpieces. Apparently, the National Gallery has a different opinion.

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An Architectural Journey Through the Woods

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

There are extraordinary connections between the natural world and the capacity for creativity in human beings. In his book Last Child in the Woods, journalist and author Richard Louv observes: “Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in a creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion.” He concludes that in nature, “a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.” The architect Frank Harmon likewise wrote touchingly about the outdoors, woods, and water as perfect settings for cultivating a thirst for learning and discovery: “Children raised by creeks are never bored. Creek children don’t know about learning by rote, neither are they conditioned to working nine to five. Berries are their first discoveries, and birds’ nests, and watching the stars come out. Later they discover books. To creek children, learning is discovery, not instruction.”

When It Comes to Design for the Disabled, Let the Science Lead the Process

This article was originally published on Common Edge

Steven J. Orfield's firm, Orfield Laboratories (OL), has spent 50 years in architectural design, research, and testing, dedicated to the premise that what matters in design is the end user, because design in the absence of user comfort, preference, and satisfaction is a failure. In this process, the firm has developed building performance standards for most commercial building types, and has now added to those standards the requirements for half of the world: people who are perceptually and cognitively disabled (PCD). The expense in doing this has been significant, but it has been one of the most important quests in Orfield's life.

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