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Lee Bey on Chicago’s South Side, Historic Preservation, and Race

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

By and large, architectural photo books hew to a paradigm: big, glossy images of big, glossy buildings, paired with minimal text, shorn of any and all polemics. Context, in this environment, can be a distraction. Fortunately, Lee Bey’s new book, Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side (Northwestern University Press), is a notable exception to this unwritten rule. It’s an intriguing hybrid: a photo book of the South Side, a neighborhood history, a mini-memoir, and a polemic about systemic racism and historic preservation in Chicago.

Paul Hendrickson on the Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater House © Flickr user Pablo Sanchez Martin (CC BY 2.0)
Fallingwater House © Flickr user Pablo Sanchez Martin (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Frank Lloyd Wright might be the most chronicled architect of the past 150 years. Scores of books, both mainstream and academic, have been written about him. “Wright scholars” are common in the academy. Dissertations are still being penned about the great man, six decades after his death. Philip Johnson called Wright “my favorite 19th-century architect.” (It was not meant as a compliment.) And yet every half-decade or so, Johnson’s mothership, MoMA, mounts yet another Wright exhibition, and thousands flock to see the now-familiar models, drawings, and photographs. Wright has even received the Ken Burns treatment, a full-length PBS documentary, surely a sign of his Mount Rushmore–like cultural status. Into this very crowded room now steps author Paul Hendrickson, whose new book, Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright (Knopf), attempts to shed new light on the architect.

Are We Air Conditioning our Planet to Death?

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

This summer the federal government released an astonishing statistic: 87% of American homes are now equipped with air conditioning. Since the world is getting undeniably warmer, I suppose this isn’t all that surprising, but keep in mind that robust number of mechanically cooled homes include residences in some fairly temperate climates. So my question is a simple one: When did air conditioning in the U.S. became a requirement, rather than an add-on? 

What We Don't Get About Climate Change

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Fellow architects, can we talk? This is gonna hurt, but it needs saying. Were I a poet, I’d write, The end is nigh, and we are why. I’m no bard, though, so I’ll put it this way: Most of us suspect anthropogenic climate change will lead to civilization’s end. Some architects deny the science (“The climate is always changing!”), while others ignore the obvious (denial is a good coping mechanism), but buried within the folds of all angst-addled designer brains lies the fear that today’s toddlers could be the last of us.

I’ll pause here to let the weight of that thought depress you.

Rebuilding Nigeria: When Architecture Is About Restoring Culture

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

For the past decade, Nigeria has lived under the crushing specter of attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram. From Maiduguri to Abuja, bombs have exploded intermittently, killing hundreds, destroying thousands of homes, and crippling public infrastructure. In recent years, the Nigerian military has liberated several captive communities and begun reconstruction work in a number of them. Sadly, the aftereffects of these violent convulsions have profoundly reshaped our cities. The attacks utterly upended lives: shattering basic civic amenities, disrupting livelihoods, and forcing residents to rebuild from scratch while still grieving for family and friends.

The Two Most Dangerous Words In Architecture: Style and Beauty

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

"I hate this whole ‘beauty’ thing,” says a deeply talented architect and professor friend, reacting to an emerging ripple in the zeitgeist. He is not alone. Words are dangerous things. Since World War II, there has been a consensus mainstream in architecture: the Modernist canon. But change is coming in the profession—and in our culture.

The true believers cringe at the word “beauty” as a design criterion. They dismiss the word “style,” too. Like all orthodoxies, there is simply “right” and “wrong.” The realities of the “wrong” are writ large in architectural orthodoxy: “wrong” is anything allusive to anything but that canon itself. Closed-loop rationalization gives comfort to the convicted.

How to Write an Architectural Manifesto

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Architecture lost itself in an identity crisis not long ago. The discipline wandered in self-reflection, reexamining how practitioners go about their work, how the built environment should appear, and why. Movements came and went. Promising paths dead-ended. Eventually, the profession gave up looking for ways out of its uncertainty, leaving us where we are today.

In premodern eras, new construction techniques, evolving opinions on art, and shifting societal beliefs drove styles. Advances were slow, but once established, became long-lived norms. The Gothic period lasted four centuries, the Renaissance three. From the nineteenth century on, though, more than a hundred aesthetic and philosophical movements lived quickly and died. As historian Charles Jencks notes, there were “a plurality of live architectural traditions” even during the International Style’s forty-year hegemonic heyday.

Witold Rybczynski on Charleston, Small Scale Development, and the Need for “Locatecture”

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In late May, my friend Witold Rybczynski published Charleston Fancy: Little Houses & Big Dreams in the Holy City (Yale University Press), about a group of architects and developers building small infill housing in Charleston, South Carolina. Having recently witnessed too much large scale development in my hometown, Boston, the topic piqued my interest so I called up Witold to talk about his new book.

Restoring the Physical Nature of Design

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

As the architecture and interior design professions have advanced through the centuries, so too have their tools, from drawing on parchment in the Middle Ages to drafting on vellum with graphite in the 20th century. Today, tools like Revit and numerous 3D-modeling programs allow users to create an image of a design more quickly than ever before; in some cases, programs even generate elevations and details. Digital imagery of finish materials and 3D-block libraries of furniture and fixtures allow us to create an entire project without any tactile interaction with the items or finishes specified. But these tools, and the instant gratification offered by them, raise critical questions: Are architects and interior designers losing the physical aspect of design? Has our relationship with the physical qualities of design been watered down because we no longer have to draw a chair or bathtub, but can simply download them, thereby losing the intimacy of working out the details ourselves? 

It’s Time to End the Reign of Single-Family House Zoning

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Practicing architects live and die by zoning regulations. We begin routine projects by reading ordinances and calling local officials to reassure clients that their desired outcomes will be possible under current land-use laws. If we’re lucky, the project will be built without troublesome variances and hearings before stony-faced zoning boards. Increasingly, however, what seemed straightforward and responsible 15 years ago is today considered controversial enough to merit a public hearing, and perhaps the assistance of high-priced attorneys. Often, the issue is protecting the “rights” of nearby homeowners, who see their property values threatened by any new development.

Opinion: In Architecture, Silence Is Anything But Golden

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Architects compete, and the internet provides unlimited opportunities for competition among all who wish to offer up something for consideration. None of this is news. But there’s been a change in both the expectations and the etiquette around all of those offerings.

Earlier this month, I was asked to submit to two small competitions. I had completed successful projects that matched each competition’s focus, so I dove in. We confirmed that our entries met the criteria and deadlines; we knew the day of jury deliberations and the release date of their decision. As usual, we lost (success only comes for those willing to accept failure); also, as usual, the verdict for us and for all other runners up was silence.

Thomas Fisher on The Ethics of Architecture and Other Contradictions

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Why don’t architects often consider the ethics of what they do? Thomas Fisher’s new book, The Architecture of Ethics, digs into this topic in great depth and with engaging insight. At the recent AIA convention in Las Vegas, I sat down with Fisher—former dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design, and now a professor in urban design at the school, as well as director of the Minnesota Design Center—to talk about his book and the ethical dimension of designing and building in the context of contemporary practice.

Hudson Yards and Notre-Dame: A One-Two Punch of Megalomania

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In recent months, two events have done more harm to the “brand” of architecture in the public’s perception than anything I’ve experienced in the 40 years that I have been in the profession.

First, there was the grand opening of New York City’s Hudson Yards, a massive $20 billion development on Manhattan’s far west side. This first phase opened after seven years of construction and included an obligatory gathering of “world class” architects—Kohn Pedersen Fox, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SOM, The Rockwell Group—as well a folly by designer Thomas Heatherwick.

What could possibly go wrong?

Paul Goldberger on Ballpark: Baseball in the American City

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Paul Goldberger has a new book out, released just this week, entitled Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. Taking a page from the Ken Burns playbook, the book looks at a particularly American building type as a lens for looking at the broader culture of cities. Goldberger’s premise is a good one: Ballparks do parallel, to a remarkable degree, trends in American urbanism. They start as an escape from the city, then the city builds up around them. Post–World War II, they escape to the suburbs, then decades later return to the city. Today, privatization of the public realm and real estate development are driving the agenda. Recently I talked with Goldberger about the new book and a whole slew of magical ballparks, both living and long gone.

Notre-Dame and the Questions It Raises About Sacred Space

© Flickr user la_bretagne_a_paris licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
© Flickr user la_bretagne_a_paris licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "Notre-Dame and the Questions It Raises About Sacred Space."

What We Can Learn About Public Space From Cuba

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "What Landscape Architects and Urban Designers Can Learn About Public Space From Cuba."

It was certainly what I had come for: I was sitting on broad, cobbled steps, watching people interact in the public realm. It was an August afternoon in Cuba, and I had found temporary respite from the harsh sun beneath a haphazard array of trees. My design work as a landscape architect focuses on urban parks, streetscapes, and academic campuses, and I wanted to see how differently the open spaces of Cuba might function.

Anne Taylor on How Design Education Can Transform Our Schools

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "How Design Education Can Transform Our Schools".

Opinion: Women in Architecture Need a New Set of Role Models—Beyond the Star System

Sesc Pompéia / Lina Bo Bardi. Image © Nelson Kon
Sesc Pompéia / Lina Bo Bardi. Image © Nelson Kon

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "Women in Architecture Need a New Set of Role Models—Beyond the Star System"