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.
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.
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.
John King has covered the urban design beat for the San Francisco Chronicle for 17 years now. That’s long enough, in other words, to have written about a handful of economic booms and subsequent busts. But the Bay Area is a unique beast. No other region in the country has been as thoroughly transformed by the digital revolution. And it’s a transformation that continues to this day. Shortly before the New Year, I spoke to King about the fate of San Francisco, the Oakland renaissance, and his 4-month long fellowship in Washington, DC.
I have a distinct memory from my days as an architecture student at the University of California Berkeley in the late ‘80s. During an architectural survey class taught by Spiro Kostof, Louis I Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery popped up in the slideshow. “Nice building,” I thought, “but what’s with those windows?”
Fifteen years later at Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects), I would become the project architect for the construction phase overseeing the rehabilitation of that classic building—the most challenging aspect of which was to replace “those windows.” I came to understand, intimately, how the double-paned window wall had failed almost as soon as construction was complete. Condensation accumulated between the panes, creating the foggy effect that marred my first impression of this groundbreaking building.
People perceive architecture in different ways. “Style” is often an easy classification, traditional or modern. Popular residential work is often categorized dismissively by architects as “vernacular.” The branding of the product of the profession, an oeuvre of work embodied in buildings and their meaning in our culture as celebrated by the American Institute of Architects, has many levels of recognition, from local AIA Chapter Awards, to national Awards.
No AIA Award has more meaning or lustre inside the profession than the “Twenty-five Year Award” for buildings that have “stood the test of time.” The award has been given continuously for the last 56 years. This year, the Design Jury chosen to select a seminal building has opted not to give an award to anything, any building 25-35 years old.
Recently I spent part of a week in the company of a multidisciplinary group of academics and researchers from Europe, the US, and Africa, at a workshop entitled “The Practice and Politics of DIY Urbanism in Africa.” Jonathan Makuwira, a professor from the Malawi University of Technology, delivered a compelling paper on “Disability and Urbanism in Malawi,” highlighting the many challenges of the continent’s disabled population, using that city as a case study.
The lecture reaffirmed my sentiments on the gross inadequacies of urban public spaces for the disabled. It’s an issue that formed the basis for my 2016 entry for the Richard Rogers Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), where I had proposed to use the fellowship to develop a prescriptive accessible design blueprint for public spaces in the city of Abuja.
https://www.archdaily.com/886204/how-african-cities-are-failing-people-with-disabilities-and-what-architects-can-do-about-itMathias Agbo, Jr.
Jane Jacobs was arguably the most important “citizen” planner in the 20th century. If we were setting up a related category for credentialed planners, then the great Danish urbanist Jan Gehl might just top that list; inspired by the ideas of Jacobs, the architect and urban designer has spent nearly a half-century studying and writing about public space. He helped his home city of Copenhagen become a kind of model for walkable urbanism and has consulted for cities all over the world.
Two and a half years ago his firm, Gehl, launched a nonprofit arm, Gehl Institute, dedicated to public engagement, and the use and creation of public urban space as a tool of both economic development and political equity. Recently the institute published what it describes as “tools for measuring public space and public life, in the form of free, downloadable worksheets.” The toolkit is beautifully executed. Last week I talked to Shin-pei Tsay, executive director of the Gehl Institute, about the tools and what her group hopes to accomplish with them.
Both articles confuse me. “Good buildings recede seamlessly into their surroundings,” Rennix and Robinson claim, but the buildings they praise—figural structures such as London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Moorish palace of The Alhambra—stand out prominently. D’Aprile criticizes the authors’ imprecise use of terminology, but, as the opening passage above shows, her own language can be vague, relying on words such as iconic, ubiquitous shorthand among architects. (If it’s intended to convey “distinctive,” the irony is that most buildings described with that term have a similar sculptural character, so in our mind’s eye they all sort of blend together—the opposite of distinction.) She defines architecture as “buildings that have been designed for construction in the physical world.” Aren’t all buildings constructed “in the physical world”? And are all unrealized designs necessarily relegated to something other than architecture?
While many architects have long clung to the old “form follows function” adage, form follows brain function might be the motto of today’s advertisers and automakers, who increasingly use high-tech tools to understand hidden human behaviors, and then design their products to meet them (without ever asking our permission!)
Biometric tools like an EEG (electroencephalogram) which measures brain waves; facial expression analysis software that follows our changing expressions; and eye-tracking, which allows us to record “unconscious” eye movements, are ubiquitous in all kinds of advertising and product development today—beyond the psychology or medical departments where you might expect to see them. These days you’ll also find them installed at the behavioral research and user experience labs in business schools such as American University in DC and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts.
What happens when you apply a biometric measure like eye-tracking to architecture? More than we expected...
https://www.archdaily.com/884945/heres-what-you-can-learn-about-architecture-from-tracking-peoples-eye-movementsAnn Sussman & Janice M Ward
Higher education is on the cusp of a major transition. It’s extremely likely that professional training, including that necessary to become an architect, will be conducted primarily online in the relatively near future. This means that design studio classes, a hallmark of the architect’s experience, will also happen online, likely without the in-person, face-to-face contact that defines that experience. The shift will eliminate many self-defeating aspects of today’s studio culture, but there’s also potential pitfalls that need to be addressed, before an online version of that culture acquires its own bad habits. We can do this by pro-actively devising new teaching and working methods that leverage the capabilities of digital education to promote constructive social dynamics between students.
Late last month Current Affairs published an essay by Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson titled “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture: And if you don’t, why you should.” The piece, written in a pseudo-funny Internet lexicon wherein all objects of criticism are “garbage,” is so laden with irony—the poorest of substitutes for analysis—that it is difficult to discern a core argument. Still, I’d like to question the central premise of the piece: that what the authors term “contemporary architecture” is ugly and oppressive, and that liking it is nothing shy of immoral.
It is safe to say that architects, academics, critics and even the public have been arguing about the merits of architectural style for centuries. Even during the course of my own career, the more general style categories of contemporary-vs-traditional have continued in an unabated battle. For better or worse, contemporary has generally won out as the default position for most schools and publications, probably because of the sheer visual entertainment value it offers, and the lucrative merits of its two stepchildren, branding and advertising.
I’d like to propose another position: that certain enduring principles of art, rather than any temporary style—and, remember, they are all temporary—should be our real architectural goal. This presumption means you must be agnostic when it comes to style and put aside any notion of an ideological stance regarding the right or wrong of your architectural preferences. There are those, of course, who say that to imagine that “my art” is better than yours, or even that I can define real art in the first place, is a fool’s errand.
Truth be told, many architects I know are a little uneasy about their lack of building knowledge. Since architecture without construction is largely a graphic arts exercise, this is either deeply ironic or grimly paradoxical. To bridge this yawning gap, architects today typically hire a slew of consultants—roof, skin, curtain wall, interior, sustainability, preservation—who join the growing influence of software-driven structural and mechanical engineers to absorb much of what architects once assumed they could handle.
Recently we’ve written a fair amount about the state of architectural research. The general consensus appears to be that it lacks rigor and, even more importantly, is not grounded in good science. Steven J Orfield has some strong opinions about architectural research. He’s been conducting it—for architecture and design firms, as well as Fortune 500 companies—at his Minneapolis-based Orfield Laboratories for more than three decades now. Late last week I talked to him about why architects are afraid of science, how he would introduce it into the schools, and his work in the field of universal design.
A city is smart when it makes better decisions, and there are only two types of decision: strategic and tactical. Strategic decisions determine the right thing to do. Tactical decisions choose the right way to do it. SMART technology is not smart technology if it causes us as citizens to confuse strategy with tactics. In other words, there are many decisions about the operation of a city that we may delegate happily to technology. But there are questions of governance, of determining our fate, of deciding what is the right thing to do as populace, that if we delegate—we abdicate. “To govern is to choose,” John F. Kennedy once said.
If I were to have believed the many consultants and emissaries of large technology companies that came to see me when I was the Chief Urban Designer of New York City, the SMART city they promised me was a place where the traffic lights always turned green and the elevator doors always awaited our arrival. They promised a city that would anticipate our needs at every turn, given tantalizing form in the recent present of our connected personal devices and the apps that seem to know us better than we know ourselves. Now, with the advent of the internet of things on the near horizon, we are set to make SMART cities a reality. Imagine the awesome power of an entire city synchronized to our taste and movement!
Jan Gehl, the great Danish urbanist, has much in common with Jane Jacobs. For the better part of a half-century now, his focus has been on the development of people-oriented cities. The author of a number of books, including Life Between Buildings, Cities for People, Public Spaces—Public Life, and most recently, How to Study Public Life, Gehl and his colleagues have also served as consultants for the cities of Copenhagen, London, Melbourne, Sydney, New York and Moscow. Gehl Architects currently has offices in Copenhagen, New York and San Francisco. I spoke to Gehl about Jacobs, the folly of modernist city planning, and New York City’s durable urban form.
A few years ago, while visiting, or rather exploring, Notre-Dame, the author of this book found, in an obscure corner of one of the towers, this word carved upon the wall:
These Greek characters, black with age, and cut deep into the stone with the peculiarities of form and arrangement common to Gothic calligraphy that marked them the work of some hand in the Middle Ages, and above all the sad and mournful meaning which they expressed, forcibly impressed the author.