In the past three decades, Dubai has grown from a dusty desert town to a strategic hub for international business and tourism. As a result, several cities in the developing world have been competing to outdo one another in the race to replicate this development model—an urbanism largely built around the automobile, luxury villas, gleaming skyscrapers, massive shopping malls, and ambitious “smart” cities, designed and built from scratch. Across Africa, these new developments go by different names: Eko Atlantic City Nigeria, Vision City in Rwanda, Ebene Cyber City in Mauritius; Konza Technology City in Kenya; Safari City in Tanzania; Le Cite du Fleuve in DR Congo, and several others. All are mimicries of Dubai.
Common Edge: The Latest Architecture and News
Sustainability awards and standards touted by professional architecture organizations often stop at opening day, failing to take into account the day-to-day energy use of a building. With the current format unlikely to change, how can we rethink the way what sustainability means in architecture today? The first step might be to stop rewarding purpose-built architecture, and look instead to the buildings we already have. This article was originally published on CommonEdge as"Why Reusing Buildings Should be the Next Big Thing."
At the inaugural Rio Conference on the Global Environment in 1992, three facts became abundantly clear: the earth was indeed warming; fossil fuels were no longer a viable source of energy; the built environment would have to adapt to this new reality. That year I published an essay in the Journal of Architectural Education called “Architecture for a Contingent Environment” suggesting that architects join with both naturalists and preservationists to confront this situation.
This article was originally published on Common Edge as " Why Architects Still Struggle With Disability Requirements 28 Years After Passage of the ADA".
The recent death of President George H.W. Bush occasioned assessments of his administration’s legislative achievements, one of which was the far-ranging Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights act signed into law in 1990. The law included accommodations for people with disabilities in buildings. In the ensuing decades the ADA has had a significant impact on the design and construction of the built environment in the U.S. To gauge the impact of ADA, how it has evolved, common misconceptions about ADA, and its role in promoting social equity in architecture, I spoke with Peter Stratton, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Accessibility Services at Steven Winter Associates, who works with architects and others in the construction industry on the application of the ADA design standards. (I worked at the Connecticut-based Winter firm between 1996 and 2006; Stratton was a colleague.)
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.
This extract was originally published on Common Edge as "The Legacy of Christopher Alexander: Criteria for an Intelligent Architecture."
In his monumental four-volume book, The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander talks about an intelligent architecture, responsive to human needs and sensibilities through adaptation to existing buildings and nature. This is a new way of viewing the world—a way of connecting to it, and to ourselves—yet it is very much the same as the most ancient ways of connecting.
This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "The Design Media Needs to Examine its Own Privilege."
Kate Wagner grew up in rural North Carolina. As a kid, her mom, who never went to college, worked in a grocery store deli and later in childcare. Her dad had a steady government job with a pension, and his time in the military meant he had the resources and benefits needed to get a college degree. Wagner describes her economic background as “one foot in the working class and one foot in the middle class, and it was always a negotiation between those two classes.” They were, she says, “just normal-ass American people.”
This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "Was Modernism Really International? A New History Says No."
I taught architectural history in two schools of architecture during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then it was common for students to get a full three-semester course that began with Antiquity and ended with Modernism, with a nod to later twentieth-century architecture. My text for the middle section was Spiro Kostof’s magisterial History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. With many centuries to cover, he spent very little effort in dealing with the twentieth century. In the last third of the course, students read texts such as Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier and Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. My colleagues and I felt that we offered students a pluralistic and comprehensive review of key developments in the history of the built environment.
This interview was originally published on Common Edge as "Mark Lamster on His New Biography of Philip Johnson."
Philip Johnson lived a long and extraordinarily eventful life. He was an architect, a museum curator, a tastemaker, a kingmaker, a schemer, an exceptionally vivid cultural presence. Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News and Harvard Loeb Fellowship recipient, has now written a thoroughly engaging biography of him entitled, Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century: The Man in the Glass House. I talked to Lamster two weeks ago about the book and the bundle of contradictions that was Philip Johnson.
This article was originally published on Common Edge as "How the Quick Daily Drawing Puts Humanity Back Into Architecture."
Architect Frank Harmon has a discipline: he tries to do a freehand drawing every day. He doesn’t spend much time on them. About five minutes. These short spurts of depiction have the effect of catching lightning in a bottle or, as Virginia Woolf once said about the importance of writing every day, “to clap the net over the butterfly of moment.” To capture these moments you must be fast. The minute moves. Harmon’s drawings feel loose, fuzzy at the edges. You sense their five-minute duration.
This article was originally published on Common Edge as "How Architectural 'Theory' Disconnects the Profession from the Public."
Whatever the form—personal, theoretical, scholarly—architects frequently veer into the philosophical terrain when defending otherwise subjective design decisions. Personally, this may be justifiable. But professionally, this reliance on quasi-philosophical spin is one of the fundamental ways architecture differs from other practical pillars of society, such as law, finance or medicine. Those disciplines are based on structures of knowledge (precedent or code, economics, and science, respectively) that mediate between professional decisions and subjective judgement.
This article was originally published as "What Marchers Today Can Learn from the May 1968 Protests in Paris" on CommonEdge in May 2018. In the 50 years since the historic and worldwide protests of 1968, much has changed. But today's political climate seems equally volatile, with seismic changes threatening social and political establishments across the globe. Lessons from the past are, to borrow the phrase of the moment, more relevant than ever.
American friends recently sent an email: “What’s going on with the French political system? Why all the strikes? What about the endless protest marches? We’d like to visit you in Paris, but we’re a little wary.”
Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) the doom of the architecture profession and design services (as some warn) or a way to improve the overall design quality of the built environment, expanding and extending design services in ways yet to be explored? I sat down with my University of Hartford colleague Imdat As. Dr. As is an architect with an expertise in digital design who is an assistant professor of architecture and the co-founder of Arcbazar.com, a crowd-sourced design site. His current research on AI and its impact on architectural design and practice is funded by the US Department of Defense. Recently we sat down and talked about how this emerging technology might change design and practice as we now know it—and if so, would that be such a bad thing?
This article was originally published as "Doom or Bloom: What Will Artificial Intelligence Mean for Architecture?" on CommonEdge. It has been slightly abridged for publication on this platform; the full interview can be read on CommonEdge here.
This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Contrary to Architecture's Critical Establishment, Robert A.M. Stern's Yale Colleges Are a Triumph of Placemaking."
In late January I attended a moving memorial service at Yale’s Battell Chapel for Vincent Scully, the man who led me to architecture as a career, and who continues to inspire me as a writer and historian. While there I took the opportunity to tour Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges, Yale’s first new residential colleges in half a century. I came away marveling at the quality of the architecture, and thanking my alma mater for its vision and commitment to enhancing the city and the campus.
This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Will Detroit ever Fully Recover from John Portman's Renaissance Center?"
Last week I wrote about the anti-urban legacy of architect and developer John Portman. I think it’s worth going into a bit more detail about these projects, since we seem to have learned so little from their failures.
Let’s start with Detroit. The Renaissance Center was one of his largest and most celebrated projects. But this sprawling complex of seven-interconnected skyscrapers poses some difficult questions for urban planners today: can downtown Detroit ever fully recover from this mammoth and ill considered development? And, more importantly, why haven’t other cities learned from its clear and stark lessons?
This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Architectural Criticism that's Not Just for Architects."
In case you hadn’t noticed the world is going from paper to pixels. You’re reading this, here. Everything is changing, and that includes how we talk and think and write about architecture.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer: "To Understand a Building, Go There, Open your Eyes, and Look!"
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.
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?
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?”