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The Nine-Step Architectural Beauty Detox Plan

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In 1755, Francesco Algarotti, disgusted with what opera had become, wrote An Essay On The Opera in which he called for its simplification. For Algarotti, opera had degenerated into a vehicle for soloists to grandstand with endless improvisations overshadowing the music and ignoring the drama. Even the drama had lost the plot with mythological characters in extraordinary and complex situations. Algarotti saw drama as being the essence of opera and wanted the emphasis restored to it, with everything else secondary. Christoph Willibald Gluck and his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, were the first to make it work with their 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice. It had characters and drama people could relate to, music that could be remembered and lyrics and a plot that could be understood. It’s regarded as the first truly modern opera.

Hidden Figures: The Historic Contributions of Black Architects in the United States

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Designer Paul Wellington, based in Milwaukee, United States, is the author of Black Built: History and Architecture in the Black Community, a book that documents more than 40 works of architecture around the country by Black architects that have had a direct impact on communities of color. He’s now working on a new book that will focus on Black women architects in a field dominated by white males. I spoke with Wellington about the new book, what he learned through his research on Black architects and their work, and the future of increasing the ranks of Black architects in the U.S.

Urban Design in a Time of Anti-Space

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In the mid-1990s, when I was an editor at Progressive Architecture, jurors for the magazine’s awards program gave an Urban Design Award to Peterson Littenberg Architects for a plan the small New York firm had devised for then-stagnant Lower Manhattan.

At the time, the southern tip of Manhattan ranked as the third-largest downtown business district in the United States. The tightly packed 1 square mile contained a bevy of venerable buildings, among them the New York Stock Exchange, the former headquarters of J.P. Morgan, and the fortress-like, neo-Renaissance Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Though the vast majority of Americans regarded the district as a powerful financial hub, people close to the scene saw it as a place with grim prospects. More than a quarter of its commercial space stood vacant. Companies were leaving Lower Manhattan for Midtown and more distant locales. Many of the office buildings were regarded as obsolete.

Reflecting on the African American Experience at the Harvard GSD

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police, the United States erupted in protests and demonstrations. The fervor generated by that event reached the world of architecture education a couple of weeks later, when two groups at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD)—the African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD—posted a public statement, Notes on Credibility, calling for reforms at the school. Four days later, Dean Sarah M. Whiting posted a response, Towards a New GSD. Shortly after, I reached out to the groups, and they put me in touch with two of their members: Caleb Negash, a second-year student in the MArch program, and Andrew Mbuthia Ngure, a third-year student in the same program.

Why Don’t We Teach Chinese Architecture in the United States?

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Why Don’t We Teach Chinese Architecture?"

How many U.S. architecture professors know that there is a Chinese treatise equivalent to Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture? Very few, I suspect. I taught architectural history for more than 20 years before I discovered the marvelous Yingsao Fashi, a Song Dynasty book by a prominent court official who, as far as we know, was not an architect or builder. In fact, prior to the Ming Dynasty no prominent temple, palace, or shrine in China was designed by an architect because the concept of a single mastermind in charge of a building project was foreign to the East Asian way of designing environments of any kind.

What Neuroscience Says About Modern Architecture Approach

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture".

How did modern architecture happen? How did we evolve so quickly from architecture that had ornament and detail, to buildings that were often blank and devoid of detail? Why did the look and feel of buildings shift so dramatically in the early 20th century? History holds that modernism was the idealistic impulse that emerged out of the physical, moral and spiritual wreckage of the First World War. While there were other factors at work as well, this explanation, though undoubtedly true, tells an incomplete picture.

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.

Laurel Canyon: The Classic California Urban Ecosystem

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The most arresting image, among many, in the documentary Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, directed by Alison Ellwood, is a black-and-white photograph of Eric Clapton visiting Los Angeles for the first time on tour with Cream. He sits a few feet from Joni Mitchell, who is playing guitar, with a visibly stoned David Crosby in the background on the backyard lawn of Cass Elliot’s house. Clapton observes Mitchell with such a smoldering intensity you think he’s going to blow an amp. He is transfixed by Mitchell not because she was striking—and she was—but because of her musicianship.

Why Climate Change Planning Will Be Cultural as Well as Physical

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

There is nothing like a crisis to bring people together. After Hurricane Katrina, more than 9,000 citizens participated in the development of the Unified New Orleans Plan that our firm Concordia coordinated in collaboration with 12 other planning teams. Now we’re working with another stellar group on a project called LA Safe, with the goal of creating a plan for residents of south Louisiana who will be among the first to experience the devastating impacts of sea-level rise.

Designers and Planners Take Note: People’s Fondest Memories Rarely Involve Technology

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

As planners who regularly engage everyday citizens in the planning process, we like to start by having people build their favorite childhood memories with found objects. Most often, these memories are joy-infused tales of the out-of-doors, nature, friends, family, exploration, freedom. Rarely do these memories have much to do with technology, shopping, driving, watching television, and so many of the other things that seem to clutter up our daily lives. But then again, these are folks who have known a world that has been—at least for part of their lives—screen- and smartphone-free. 

Letter From Nigeria: Coronavirus and the African City

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, I, like most of the world, have spent the last few months quarantined at home, perturbed and uncertain about the ramifications of it all. I will spare you my predictions for the Post-Pandemic Future of the African City (there’s presently no shortage of those), but instead, I want to offer up some observations about our current situation. As an African, my perspective is both unique to our continent and universal to everyone. It is, afterall, a global pandemic. 

Modern Architects Stink at Lying. Luckily, That’s Fixable

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Apart from dressing like an undertaker, wearing black-rimmed circular glasses, and driving Swedish cars, modern architects’ most conspicuous trait is their aesthetic honesty, which is dangerous. Sincerity leaves little room for imagination.

Edward Mazria With Some Good News About Combating Climate Change

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The news about real action on climate change tends to track toward the gloomy. It is easy to despair, given the severity of the problem and the time left to properly address it. But there is progress being made in the built environment—just not nearly fast enough to offset emissions elsewhere. In recent years the sector has added billions of square feet of new buildings, but seen energy consumption for the entire sector actually decline. A good chunk of the credit for that accomplishment can go to architect Edward Mazria and his dogged advocacy organization, Architecture2030. Mazria and his team, along with collaborators all over the world, keep doing the unglamorous work of revising building codes, working with mayors, governors, elected officials in Washington (and officials in China), forging new alliances, all while deftly working around the climate obstructionists currently occupying the White House. Recently I talked to Mazria, who spoke from his home in New Mexico, about his take on where we stand. Some of the news, alas, is pretty good.

Dr. Strangelove’s Strange Environmental Lesson for Architects

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of those rare movies that not only gets better with time but also presents a new layer of meaning with each viewing. Recently I’ve come to believe that it’s the most important movie about environmentalism ever made, not only because of its warning about nuclear annihilation, which is obvious, but because of its sly critique of the idea of professionalism and the nature of work.

Status, Statues, and Statutes: The Issue With Monuments to Flawed Men

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Monuments, as Alois Riegl pointed out a century ago, are aids to memory. “In memoriam,” the carvings cry out. Though they are almost always tainted with political ideologies and social values, they can stand on their own as works of art, absorbing meanings over millennia. Many that we continue to treasure were once associated with events and practices antithetical to modern mores and taboos: Greek temples were founded on the altars of animal—and, earlier, human—sacrifice; the pyramids were made by slaves; market crosses may have served as flogging posts. There really are no innocent human artifacts dedicated to remembering human acts, as fact or fiction.

Letter From Berkeley: Campus Planning in an Increasingly Virtual World

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic shifted our university—the University of California, Berkeley—totally online, along with the whole of education from childcare up across the country and most of the planet. In the wake of this forced and unprecedented experiment, debates about what it means remain ongoing. Will the episodic dream of a placeless university, or at minimum a hybrid place/placeless one, come true? Millennia of experience argue for giving higher education a local, physical anchor. And most universities and colleges have this anchor as their starting place, even as they consider what their ongoing experience with virtual teaching, research, and administration means.

Empathy in Design: Measuring How Faces Make Places

This article originally appeared in The Genetics of Design and was then republished by Common Edge.

Since 2015, Ragusa, Sicily has hosted FestiWall, an international art festival devoted to enhancing the public realm and improving citizen engagement with the modern section of an old city. The image above shows two views of a residential tower before and after FestiWall. Which one grabs your eye?

We’ll guess you’re drawn to the one with the art at right. Running the image through biometric software predicts you’ll immediately focus on the man in the mural.

Bryan C. Lee on Design Justice and Architecture’s Role in Systemic Racism

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In the rage, furor, and sorrow that followed the murder of George Floyd, one voice in the architecture community managed to put the nation’s centuries-overdue reckoning with race into the larger context of the built environment. Earlier this month, CityLab published architect Bryan C. Lee Jr.’s essay “America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress,” an impassioned polemic on design and race that also had the great virtue of offering up specific solutions.

Lee is the founder and design principal of Colloqate, a New Orleans–based design and public advocacy firm that was named an Emerging Voice in 2019 by the Architectural League of New York. Colloqate led the Paper Monuments project in 2017, a public art and public history campaign that was launched in conjunction with the successful fight to remove the Confederate statues in New Orleans. In addition to its advocacy work, the firm is currently working on architectural projects in Portland, Toronto, and New Orleans. Last week I talked with Lee about his essay, the charged moment that we’re in, and where the nation goes from here.