Let Them Eat Kale

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Murs à pêches in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France.

The growing interest in urban agriculture means we need to think about the city in a whole new way.

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The media moment is lasting. First ladies and queens — Michelle Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, and “Queen of Cuisine” Alice Waters — have endorsed kitchen and allotment gardens for their nutritional and educational values. The New York Times and Financial Times regularly report on urban agriculture, “edible schoolyards,” foraging, and gleaning. Organizations such as Growing Power in Milwaukee hold on to the limelight, its founder Will Allen knighted with a MacArthur (“Genius Award”) Fellowship, and its greenhouses, composting facilities, job program, and tilapia tanks duly documented in videos and articles. The business world has taken notice too: New Urbanist Andrés Duany states that “agriculture is the new golf,” and a financier aims to convert 20,000 acres of Detroit’s vacant land into farmland. Whether as shorthand for sustainable land use or a loophole to acquire land inexpensively, urban agriculture and the associated idea of “the productive landscape” are central to the current discourse on the quality of life in and around cities.

Urban agriculture is about not only food, but also sustainability, health, social justice, and money. It can mean many things to many people. Hydroponic skyscrapers in cities like New York promise a bounty of tomatoes within easy reach of office workers. Strategic interventions within so-called shrinking cities such as Detroit and St. Louis seek to revalue urban land while bringing fresh produce to “food deserts” — neighborhoods without access to grocery stores offering fresh produce. Suburban developments advertise the inclusion of agricultural land as a conservation measure, a means to guarantee “safe” local food, and to satisfy our longing for a pre-agribusiness countryside. In cities like Kampala, Uganda, and Rosario, Argentina, urban agriculture is part of a participatory design process that integrates housing programs. Given this diversity of meanings and applications, urban agriculture begs for a site-specific and scale-specific nomenclature. It is a feel-good concept in need of a critical framework.

Murs à pêches in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France.The interrelationship of city and food, both in production and consumption, has a long history. The Mesopotamian city of Uruk, founded in 3500 BCE, relied on a system of flood protection and irrigation to yield dates, legumes, and grains to support its population. Versailles offers a more recent example, and one still visible today. There, Louis XIV expressed his integrated vision of garden design, urbanism, and food production. To the south of the château, the king’s kitchen garden, or potager du roi, featured 22 acres of ornamental vegetable beds and walled orchards. Just as spatially compelling were the murs à pêches (peach walls) of Montreuil, at the opposite end of Paris, whose now barely productive traces bear witness to their mark on the collective memory. Though somewhat of a cliché, the inextricable ties between culture and cultivation — semantically and conceptually — can be witnessed across societies from the floating gardens of Xochimilco’s chinampas, near Mexico City, to the hortillonages of Amiens, in France.

As the city displaced food production from its center, the relationship between living, working, and eating became more abstract. Landscape architecture was not central to early 20th-century architectural debates, yet a number of planners and designers sought to redress urbanization and crowded cities with a productive landscape system. German garden designer Leberecht Migge’s polemics were a call to arms for food self-sufficiency. Migge promoted an integrated housing-garden unit where greenhouses, vegetable beds, walls, and pergolas spatially extended the minimum dwelling and supplemented the family diet with a carefully calibrated output of foodstuff. Three decades later, Danish landscape architect C.Th. Sørensen took a more emotional and more modest stance. Based on his observation that apartment dwellers had lost their primordial relationship to the ground, his 1948 design for the Naerum allotment gardens created a dreamlike landscape that would reconnect man with the medium of dirt. The garden ovals cascade down the slope, their hedges allowing for a multitude of cultivation endeavors, both communally and privately.

The argument for self-sufficiency embodied in the allotment garden and community garden rested on an economic and moral rationale. The penury of war, the pressure of oil dependency, and economic recession have periodically prompted a yearning for food security and proper nutrition, and/or employment. To some, the current surge in urban agriculture projects reflects a phase as temporary as the World War II victory gardens, the UK’s Women’s Land Army (which put women to work on farms during World War I and II), and the 1970s’ embrace of organic gardening, do-it-yourself structures, and Whole Earth Catalog. Others contend that the new urban farmer represents a more enduring commitment to social justice and better nutrition in a better environment. Urban agriculture is in fact the product of both a top-down revolution and grassroot movements. The somewhat elitist desire to transform the relationship of Americans to food, the nostalgic collective memory of Jeffersonian agricultural ideals, the myth of old Europe, and the preservation of landscape through agritourism are all gathered in today’s “delicious revolution” and “slow food” movement. Conversely, urban agriculture rests on models tested in the developing world. The informal, opportunistic, impromptu, yet essential gardens and plots in the cities of Latin America and Africa contribute a large percentage of the local food supply. Likewise, the community gardens of West Philadelphia are crucial in strengthening the economic base, as well as the physical and mental health and cultural identity of the community.

Just as microloans have attracted global banks, urban farming and growing food as a means to ensure physical, mental, and ultimately economic health have come to the attention of the business world. Venture capitalist Woody Tesch put food economics and local production at the center of his 2008 book Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, thus bringing attention to the Slow Money movement and the “nurture-capital” industry.

Recently, corporations have returned to the production of food as part of their operating structure. In a trend reminiscent of the paternalism of company towns, corporations such as Pepsico and Google have introduced company gardens to the workplace: employees, or sometimes corporate departments, are given access to on-site vegetable plots in order to boost morale, develop team spirit, improve employee health and well-being, support food banks, or even to improve cafeteria fare. (Response varies and is perhaps best described as mitigated enthusiasm.) On a larger and supposedly more public scale, the 20,000-acre Hantz Farms in Detroit promises to “rejuvenate [the] city by returning to its agrarian roots … and putting property back on the city tax rolls.” A commercial venture, it will use conventional methods to grow crops that include Christmas trees. Advertised as a win-win proposition, this “plantation” has already raised the specter of land-grab among community activists, given the critical importance of land tenure in urban agriculture.

The contemporary enthusiasm for urban agriculture presents a paradox: zoning regulation, olfactory and sound control, and moral opprobrium have erased almost all traces of food production within most Western cities. This contradiction reveals the difficulty of integrating agriculture into urban systems and the need for landscape architects, planners, and community activists to tackle policy. The perception of urban agriculture as a temporary land use for disenfranchised inner-city populations is also likely to hinder its potential to form a new type of open space.

It would be well worth reevaluating the mid-20th-century division between ornamental and productive landscapes, from an educational as well as an economic standpoint. As heirs to both agricultural and urbanism traditions, landscape architects are uniquely situated to bring the aesthetics of “third nature” (the garden) back into a new urban “second nature” (the farm). Productive open space will gain acceptance as an essential component of sustainable urbanism through highly visible pilot projects. The inclusion of an urban farm in Harvard University’s plan for a new campus across the Charles River would have performed such a role, had construction not been halted. The proposed Allston campus offered an ecological, spatial, and social laboratory to test ideas about urban agriculture. The interconnection of a productive and didactic landscape and urban spaces would have demonstrated Harvard’s commitment to sustainability and progressive development and taken landscape architecture and urbanism in a new direction.

But other opportunities are emerging. The 2009 proposal by Michel Desvigne and Jean Nouvel for “Grand Paris” carries implications for the redefinition of the suburban-rural interface. The periphery of Paris offers the opportunity to develop a new type of productive landscape, one performing simultaneously as an open-space system for the hyper-individualistic suburban tracts and as a test plot for the agricultural belt that lies beyond. Desvigne describes the 500-mile joint of varying width as a lisière — a term for a forest edge or a seam. Traces of a long-gone farming landscape — hedges, ditches, thickets, and paths — and an infrastructure of greenhouses, allotment gardens, recycling, energy production, composting, and sports fields organize this seam. Strictly codified, it is a terrain for exchange and experimentation, a means to make the landscape accessible to all users. In this scenario, planned indeterminacy hems the suburbanization of the countryside and allows agriculture to reenter the urban environment.

In such theoretical scenarios, urban agriculture offers the potential to recalibrate the social, economic, and spatial balance. It is the designer’s role to underscore the importance of urban agriculture as a designed open space with wide-ranging implications. And it is the politician and planner’s role to acknowledge it as a new landscape system, one that is aesthetic, productive, and sustainable.

Above: The thermal mass of the murs à pêches (peach walls) in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France, created protected environments for espaliered peach trees, typically grown in more moderate climates. First constructed in the 17th century, the walls remain in one small district (center and upper right of photo) of the modern city outside Paris, once famous for its peaches. Satellite image (top) by TerraServer; circa 1930 aerial photo courtesy

Correction: The location of the headquarters of Growing Power has been changed to Milwaukee.

Stand Up. Fight Back.

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Stand Up. Fight Back.

The Lurker

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The event: A meeting of people affected by foreclosure.

The organization: City Life/Vida Urbana, a nonprofit Boston community group.

The crowd: A hundred people, mostly Latino and African-American homeowners facing foreclosure, tenants threatened with eviction from foreclosed properties, City Life staffers and members from the community, lawyers from Greater Boston Legal Services and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau providing volunteer services.

6:42 A man in a white T-shirt stands at the front of the room, telling his story. The bank foreclosed. He went to court with a lawyer. Boston Community Capital (BCC, a nonprofit community loan fund) bought back his house from the bank. And now he is living in the house, using the rent from the first-floor unit to make mortgage payments.

“People get up and say, ‘I got my house back,’ but now I can say, ‘It’s me. It’s real.’”

6:50 Mary Wright, a tenant organizer with City Life, takes over the microphone. “Sometimes we have to wait and wait and wait. It was his time then. Be patient. Sometime it’s going to be your time.”

6:54 One by one, the people in the room introduce themselves. “My name is ____. I’m a tenant.”

“My name is ____. The bank foreclosed on my home.”

“I’m ____. Foreclosure.”

6:58 One man, new to the meeting, hesitantly introduces himself. “I’m a homeowner.”

“And you’ve been foreclosed on?” asks Steve Meacham, City Life’s tenant organizing director, from the front of the room.

“Yes. And I found out after the fact. I have a court appearance on Thursday.”

“You can talk to an attorney here tonight,” Steve tells him

6:59 “I’m ____. Tenant.”

“I’m ____. This is my first time here. I’ve been fighting this for two years. I’m at my wits’ end. But I’m still in my house. And I’m going to keep fighting.”

Mary nods. “Let me tell you, tonight you came to the right place.”


7:02 A woman says, “I’m ____. And I’m facing foreclosure.”

Steve says from the front of the room, “BCC made an offer to buy your place, but the bank is proceeding with foreclosure without even responding. That’s not going to be allowed."

7:09 Tenant organizer Melonie Griffiths delivers a speech that’s partly an introduction to City Life and partly an empowering pep talk. “We help families in the Boston area fight displacement and gentrification. We help people stay in their homes by any means necessary.”

7:14 Cell phones ring. Children run in and out of an adjoining room, where there’s pizza. The speech continues. “A lot of people think when they get that first notice from the bank, it’s time to leave. But we say to the bank, ‘Go ahead and foreclose. We’re not leaving.’ We use the sword and the shield. The shield is Boston Community Capital. The shield buys us time. But if the shield doesn’t work we go back to the sword. If people are threatened, we join hands and do a vigil or a blockade. Success is any time you stay in your house longer than the bank says you can. Even an extra month can be a good thing, if that gives you a chance to find someplace else to stay.”

7:20 Tenant organizer Jim Brooks talks about the bill recently passed in the Massachusetts Senate that extended from 30 days to 90 days a tenant’s right to stay after a foreclosure. “It passed because of you. Because you got up and told your stories. This is a major victory.”

7:30 Jim asks: “How’s everybody feeling?”

“Great,” the audience replies politely.

“Doesn’t sound like it.”

“Wonderful!” someone shouts.

“OK,” Jim says. “What do we do when the banks attack?”

This galvanizes the crowd. “Stand up!” they shout, jumping to their feet.

“Fight back!” They sit down again.

7:30 “What do we do when the banks attack?”

“Stand up! Fight back!”



The room erupts with cheers.

7:40 The crowd has split into several groups. Some people meet one-on-one with volunteer lawyers about upcoming court cases. Some are in the main meeting room discussing political strategies. Out in the hall, several newcomers sit in folding chairs in a circle, as Jim explains basic legal rights and strategies. “How many people here are homeowners?”

All raise their hands.

7:41 “OK, can a bank evict you for not paying your mortgage?” Jim asks.

“Yes,” a woman says.

“On my street,” a young man says angrily, “there are six houses in foreclosure. The minute the first one happened, mine went into the garbage.”

Jim nods, then repeats the question.

“No,” another man answers quietly.

Jim: “That’s right. Only a judge can evict you. Not the bank. You get your day in court.”

7:46 Jim explains that you don’t have to hand over your keys to the bank. “You have a lot of rights. Most people will do anything to avoid foreclosure, but we say: let it go into foreclosure. You have more negotiating rights after foreclosure than before. We do a PR campaign on your behalf. We say, ‘This person has done nothing wrong. They just want to pay a mortgage or rent based on the fair value of the home.’”

7:50 “Yeah,” the angry man says, and launches into a rant against banks. Jim listens, then interjects: “What I’m hearing from you is a lot of righteous anger. That’s good. The bank wants you to feel alone, and guilty, and ashamed. You can come in here, express that anger, cry, get energy from your peers. Fight back.”

7:52 Jim explains that City Life has a relationship with a fund — BCC — that will assess properties, buy them from the bank, and then sell them back to homeowners at a fair value. “You have to write a public letter. Not a hardship letter, but a letter telling who you are, how long you’ve lived here. Your history, your community, your kids. CC it to the mayor. It’s bad PR for the banks. People get to know your story, and say, ‘We don’t want to invest our money in that institution. We don’t like the way they’re treating Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so.’”

The angry man says, “They already print your name in the paper. There’s that little column every week that says, ‘Foreclosures.’”

“This is different,” Jim says. “This is putting a face on it. The bank is a business, a building. It doesn’t have a face. The banks don’t want you to become the face of what they’re doing.”

7:53 Jim: “The bank will offer you cash for keys. Here’s $5,000 for your keys. How does that sound to you?”

A woman, who has been taking notes on a yellow pad, answers, “Lousy.”

“You’re right,” Jim says. “That’s a cheap buyout.”

7:55 “OK,” Jim says. “Next step is a notice to quit. You have 72 hours to leave your property. What should you do?”

A man says, “Wait for an eviction notice from the court.”

“Very good. They will highlight the word ‘QUIT.’ And a lot of people get scared and run.”

7:57 Another man asks a quiet question about his own situation. “Every case is different,” Jim says, and advises him to run it by one of the volunteer attorneys tonight.

7:58 “The next step is a notice to appear in court.” Jim looks at one of the men. “What part of the city do you live in?”


“OK, so do you show up in Dorchester District Court?”


“No,” Jim says. “Before the hearing, you want to get it transferred to housing court.”

7:59 It’s hard to hear what Jim is saying. There are kids running through the hall, a man yelling into a cell phone nearby, loud voices from the political meeting in the big room. He is explaining the importance of asking for discovery, a transfer to housing court, and a jury trial. “You’re sending a message to the other side that this is not going to be a cheap buyout.”

8:02 Jim talks about the public letter. “It’s a way to practice telling your story. We had one woman who had a 48-hour notice — we thought we were going to have to do a blockade. But she went to court and told her story in a way that made the judge practically break down, and the lawyer from the other side said that maybe we could work something out. She put aside her shame and told her story.”

8:10 A couple talks about how they’ve tried to get someone to help them renegotiate their mortgage with the bank. “Nobody cares, nobody wants to hear it.”

Jim: “There are a lot of vultures out there. You have to go to a nonprofit.”

8:11 “Someone asked me for $1,900 for a modification,” a man says.

Another says ruefully, “For me it was $3,000.”

Jim says again, “There are a lot of scams.”

8:12 The angry man: “I’ve done this, I’ve done that, I’ve jumped through hoops …”

Jim: “It’s stressful. It takes a toll on marriages. On people. You feel alone and stressed.”

The man jabs a thumb at his wife. “She stresses me out. She says her Aunt Mary got this and her Uncle Joey got that. I don’t want to hear it.”

Jim says, “This movement is about love. There’s a lot of help here. This stuff is corrosive. It does awful, evil, terrible things to people. We have to be there for each other. It’s the bank that’s your enemy, not your wife.”

8:25 It’s time to rejoin the larger group. The homeowners put away their notepads and carry their folding chairs back into the meeting room. Jim follows, but stops to listen to one last question.

“You should speak to one of the lawyers before you leave tonight,” Jim tells the woman gently. “Every case is different.”

Photo by Joan Wickersham.

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Wall to Wall: The Digital Landscape

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Graz Art Museum media façade, Graz, Austria.

For better or worse, digital technologies — smartphones, LEDs, social networking — are changing our cityscapes.

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“Foursquare is all about helping you find new ways to explore the city. Earn points and unlock badges for discovering new places, doing new things, and meeting new people.”

This message greets you when you download a smartphone application from one of the popular online social-networking sites. To increase its functionality, the app links you automatically with your Facebook friends and Twitter feeds. The message encourages you to join a virtual club of urban dwellers and promises exciting new possibilities. By monitoring your activities through your phone’s GPS, the app alerts you when friends are nearby, showing their location. It also helps you to map daily routines, comment on venues, and learn from anonymous contributors. On occasion, it gives you a personal insight into private arrangements within the public realm: Navneet Alang, a Toronto-based blogger for This Magazine, writes about his favorite tip from Foursquare, which suggests asking a waiter at a certain restaurant for “the secret pink menu.” “You could call it a new approach to urban discovery, one that takes the online mantra of ‘by the people, for the people’ and mixes it with happenstance,” he adds.

Digital technology increasingly, and more and more seamlessly, bridges the physical landscape with virtual environments to form visually rich and emotionally engaging narratives. Mobile devices serve as portals to enter and navigate multimodal landscapes. Geographic data, pictures, and brief commentaries merge into a single data-based landscape. The distinction between the actual and virtual, or the permanent and temporal, fades when seen through the screen of a smartphone. Similarly, the distinction between the built and the conceptual is blurred with the integration of LED and projection technologies into architectural façades, effectively transforming previously static façades into dynamic media objects. Landscape becomes a continuous interface between these urban media façades and the ever-expanding use of digital devices with interactive content. Interactions and experiences that in the past were predominantly confined to art-gallery installations or online chat rooms become Main Street events with broader participation and authorship. While perceived by some as invasive and overreaching, media participatory landscapes could also help us to reclaim the public realm and democratize its content.

Green Cloud (Nuage Vert), Helsinki, by HeHe.

Green Cloud (Nuage Vert), Helsinki, by HeHe. Image based on original photo by Antti Ahonen.

Media façades

Media-infused urban spaces such as New York’s Times Square, or to a greater degree the Ginza and Shibuya neighborhoods of Tokyo, expand their content into mobile communication devices and often merge with the online experience. This is not limited to their visual identities or content delivery methods; these urban spaces often redefine a message and authorship within a public domain. By doing so, they create opportunities for, though not necessary guarantees of, greater public participation. Building on the increasing role of mobile devices in people’s everyday lives, many initiatives have attempted to capture this new audience and functionality. A recent ad campaign by Microsoft allowed random users to contribute a short phrase about their use of personal computers to “I’m a PC” advertisements. Each respondent’s photograph and phrase were later displayed on one of the media façades in Times Square, giving the participant 15 seconds of global visibility. This moment of personal visibility was further documented by a webcam, fed into an online gallery, and sent to the contributor in a personalized e-mail. The entire process effectively established a communication loop from mobile device to media façade and back to mobile device. Although this was a commercial campaign, it established an operability that could be easily adapted to social activism and other purposes.

D-Tower interactive public artwork project, Doetinchem, Netherlands.

D-Tower interactive public artwork project, Doetinchem, Netherlands, by artist Q. S. Serafijn and architect Lars Spuybroek (NOX) with Pitupong Chaowakul, Chris Seung-woo Yoo, and Norbert Palz. Photo courtesy NOX.

Architectural responses

Most commercially driven media façades are simple projection or display screens superimposed on an exterior wall without considering architectural design. They often are seen as design eyesores that desperately cry for public attention. Recently, however, more buildings have incorporated media components into their façades in ways that do not compromise design. In the Graz Art Museum, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier introduced “communicative display skin” that features a large, low-resolution media façade. Their design relies on abstract patterns with pixelated text or graphics, treating the media component as yet another building skin and augmenting it with a textural reading. This approach allows media content to enhance a structure’s appearance and to communicate a message or convey a building’s functional content without compromising its design integrity. In other projects, media screens and projection lighting elements change the three-dimensional perception of an immobile object, as seen in works by digital-media firm NuFormer. Temporal façade alterations can inform, entertain, or simply showcase a work of architecture in new ways, continuing a tradition of public artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Furthermore, media façades create an opportunity to redefine the relationship between a building and the public realm. In contrast with the Modernist dictum of a façade as an expression of the inner functional or structural logic of a building, these projects connect it back to historic practices, which considered a façade as an enclosure of a public space.

Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project, Brussels.

Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project, Brussels, by Magic Monkey. Photo ©

Social activism>/p>

Just as graffiti, posters, and handbills have historically appropriated the façades of private structures for public speech, so have media-enhanced landscapes already begun to extend beyond commercial use or aesthetic considerations into the sphere of social discourse and activism. The implications are profound: nothing less than the transfer of the public domain back from corporate ownership to public authorship. Equally profound is the opportunity for individual expression similar to that found in online environments. An example of this form of public discourse is a Dutch project, the D-Tower by artist Q.S. Serafijn and architect Lars Spuybroek (NOX), which maps the emotions of the inhabitants of the city of Doetinchem and expresses them through an interactive art installation. This installation relies on the input of voluntary collaborators; because the data are not analyzed or sampled statistically, the work is purely a subjective form of expression. The “Green Cloud” art installation by HeHe (Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen) confronts contemporary environmental issues, displaying energy usage by Helsinki residents. Exhausts from a power plant are used as a screen for media projections, directly correlating the visual presence of the “green cloud” image with the amount of energy produced. This adaptive installation continues to remind residents of the role they play in energy conservancy. The Green Cloud successfully integrates the ephemeral qualities of landscape with the effective use of digital media. Both installations illustrate social, emotional, or environmental data using an interface that puts residents into the position of active content creators, thus shifting their role from consumption to authorship.

The distinction between the actual and virtual, or the permanent and temporal, fades when seen through the screen of a smartphone.

In contrast to these anonymous contributions to public discourse, the recent Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project by Magic Monkey drew upon the urge to claim authorship of individual expression. “Create your own Shooting Star and share your wish with your loved ones and the millions of commuters!” encourages a Web advertisement for the project, which was installed during the December 2009 holiday season in Brussels. The Shooting Star project allowed contributing individuals to customize their holiday messages, using the Electrabel Power Plant cooling tower as a canvas for the animated LED installation. The response from the public was high, with the project attracting over 5,000 contributions within a 20-day period. The Interactive Power Station project built upon concepts previously developed in two others: Toyo Ito’s “Tower of Winds” in Yokohama, which used light as a masking device for an industrial site, and the “I’m a PC” campaign in Times Square discussed earlier, which incorporated open online public participation.

The need

As digital media, and especially media façades, assume a more prominent role in contemporary architecture, there is a growing need for research and for creative models that demonstrate enriching and meaningful integration of this technology into the urban environment. A number of questions emerge for architects and designers. How can the integration of new technologies with architecture and landscape create spaces that evoke new experiences, touch us emotionally, and help us feel at home? How can media-rich architecture and landscapes provide new answers for the needs of a mobile and globally connected society? These are the issues we need to address in the next decade, or life — in the form of commercial enterprise — will answer them for us. The question is not whether we like or dislike the extension of media content into architecture and landscape; the digital media landscape, in the form of advertisement and corporate identity, is already here. Instead, the challenge is to direct its development toward the aesthetic benefit of our urban environments and the cultural and political benefit of our society.

Top image: Graz Art Museum media façade, Graz, Austria, by Realities:United in collaboration with Spacelab Cook Fournier and ÖBA Architektur Consult. Photo by Peter Pakesch/Landesmuseum Johanneum/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0..

Recycling 2.0

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Who can argue with recycling? It’s sustainable, noble even. Yet, for most of us, the act of recycling is exactly like the act of disposing — except the bin colors are different. “The recycling” has come to mean a class of privileged rubbish, and recycling itself has come to represent only half of an idea: diverting trash from landfills. But a deeper understanding of sustainability — and a corresponding shift in our values — is now bringing attention to the other half of the idea: reuse. The design community — architects, industrial designers, fashion designers, landscape architects — has embraced the concept as a catalyst for creativity. The following six essays are reports from the design world illustrating small examples of this very big idea. They demonstrate that new attitudes about reuse influence not only what we recycle but how. Together, they suggest that we may be entering a new era of creative transformation.


The re-working of old clothes is hardly a new concept. Museum collections are full of 19th-century dresses that have been reconstructed multiple times to update them according to the latest fashion. Today, with the wealth of consumer goods at our fingertips and cutting-edge designers such as Thakoon at Target, we no longer have to worry about recycling our best garment. Indeed, the notion of “sustainable” seems out of place in a fashion system that is based on planned obsolescence, yet the trend for “new” garments using old materials continues to gain currency. Vogue now has a green issue and the Spring/Summer 2010 New York Fashion Week witnessed concurrent “Green Shows” for the first time, featuring eco-conscious designers.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Highlights from the Green Shows included the work of Susan Cianciolo, a New York City-based multimedia artist and designer who has been at the forefront of the re-purposed clothing movement since the mid-1990s. Cianciolo’s first collection in 1995 used recycled clothing and discarded scraps of fabric from the Chinatown factories, remade into edgy pieces with a deconstructed aesthetic. Cianciolo’s signature frayed hems and evident seaming reflect a deep-rooted commitment to the handmade, as do her do-it-yourself clothing kits. Since the conscious radicalism of her first RUN collection, Cianciolo has remained true to her mission. She still pulls clothing from her grandmother’s closet to screenprint and re-construct, breathing new life into a garment imbued with memories.

The design firm Alabama Chanin also links the present to the past, not only in the use of reclaimed textiles, but also in the reinvigoration of the Southern tradition of quiltmaking. Historically, American quilters used every scrap of fabric they could find, from flour sacks to the unraveled threads from red tobacco pouches. Founder Natalie Chanin continues in this vein, resurrecting the ubiquitous 20th-century garment — the cotton T-shirt — and turning it into fancifully embroidered and appliquéed skirts, dresses, and tops. Although the South’s once-vibrant cotton industry has long passed, the company also now sources cotton yardage that is “grown to sewn in the United States.”

Chanin is one of a number of contemporary designers who have published do-it-yourself books, testimony to the active and growing DIY movement. While some craftspeople feel that websites such as are a threat to the livelihood of academically trained designers, there are many who have embraced it, including the London-based design firm Junky Styling. Founded in 1997 by Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager, the designers transform vintage clothes into dramatic silhouettes. Junky Styling cunningly retains many of the details of the original garment — the closures, the cuffs, the collars — to create fashions that have a streetwise edge to them. With a nod to their English heritage, one can see connections to the doyenne of alternative design, Vivienne Westwood, as well as the punk look of the late 1970s, an earlier incarnation of the DIY aesthetic.

Junky Styling’s obvious use of vintage clothing differs from the design sensibility of Toronto-based Preloved, which finds inspiration in the garment’s textile. Founder Julia Greive started the business as a vintage clothing shop but changed her focus when head designer Peter Friesen came on board. Friesen skillfully deconstructs the original garment and completely transforms it, using sophisticated construction and inventive seaming. Each piece is comprised of two to five used garments that have been purchased in bulk from rag houses. Like Alabama Chanin, the design firm is eco-friendly to the core, hiring only local cutters and sewers. Preloved also exemplifies the future of remade fashion: an affordable, ready-to-wear line offering the customer a one-of-akind garment. It’s a prospect undreamed of without the imaginative reuse of old clothes.


Despite strong demand for sustainable products and materials in the United States, the amount of waste produced by the building industry remains staggering. Approximately 100 million tons per year — almost 40 percent of the entire municipal solid-waste stream — come from construction and demolition. While most of this waste could be recovered, material reuse remains limited, particularly at the commercial scale. In fact, LEED credits for material reuse are among the least sought after, with only 5 to 9 percent of all LEED certified projects having successfully received those credits.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

A new tool may help to change that. The Design for Reuse Primer seeks to more clearly understand the obstacles impeding reuse and provide the design and construction industry with knowledge and tools that can help alleviate the barriers. Scheduled for release in mid-2010 as a Web-based resource, the Primer also aims to bridge the communication and knowledge gaps among the various players involved in the reuse process. Thus it is targeted to a broad audience, including designers, contractors, clients, and municipalities. The primary feature of the Primer will be a series of case studies that serve as guides to the reuse process. They will not only showcase the possibilities for reuse but also serve as models that readers can adapt to their own projects.

The Primer was developed by the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture, working with deconstruction and material reuse expert Brad Guy and various government agencies, and supported by a grant from the US Green Building Council. The research team has identified a diverse range of projects varying in size, location, type, budget, scope, and design intent for inclusion as case studies.

In addition to the case studies, the project website will provide a directory of resources connecting people to additional tools that can facilitate material reuse. The website is meant to be interactive, allowing users to contribute knowledge and engage in dialogue and allowing the project to continue to grow as a productive resource. Building codes, perceived environmental health and safety concerns, scheduling and storage constraints, the inertia of familiar methodologies — there are many challenges limiting the role of reuse in the design and construction industries. Yet increasing rates of material reuse can have profound positive environmental implications, affecting everything from energy consumption to landfill waste. The Design for Reuse Primer aims to stimulate the development of new systems and infrastructure to make reuse a more common component of a sustainable building strategy.


For as long as people have built, we have un-built, too. A thousand years ago, Europeans removed the physical traces of departed conquerors by repurposing Roman bricks for new construction. Viking shipbuilders reused choice timber in new vessels. The United States, colonized to supply its bounty of raw materials to Western Europe, has less experience with the concept of reuse. My father tells of moving to an old farmhouse in northern Vermont in the 1950s and finding in the barn a ball of string measuring three feet in diameter. And next to it, a shoebox that was filled with bits of string and labeled “String Too Short To Save.”

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Today, the practice of reusing building materials is flourishing in a renaissance driven by environmental considerations as powerful as the economic motivations of the past. For Boston Building Resources (the new name, effective this spring, for the Building Materials Resource Center and the Boston Building Materials Co-op) and its Reuse Center, the financial advantages historically associated with salvage are on an equal footing with landfill diversion and embodied energy reduction. Aiming to make a positive community impact through the supply of economically accessible building materials, the Reuse Center offers a membership discount program for individuals with low to moderate incomes and for nonprofit organizations.

It was the oil crisis of the ’70s that compelled architect John Rowse to start sharing his expertise in building science and construction methods with his neighbors. In 1978, he founded the Boston Building Materials Co-op to provide homeowners with both an affordable source of insulation and training in weatherization techniques. Despite the subsequent drop in oil prices and dissipation of environmental awareness, the cooperative continued to thrive. Workshop space was added to enable members to make window repairs without investing in expensive tools, and in 1993 the Reuse Center was launched in two tractor-trailer containers on the site.

Word spread among local contractors and the trailers quickly filled with doors, windows, fixtures, and other materials diverted from landfills. Showrooms contributed new products such as lighting fixtures that were slow to sell. The less-than-ideal conditions of uninsulated trailers in blazing heat did not deter homeowners from doggedly sifting through the growing collection.

Recognizing the growing popularity of building material reuse, the staff eventually replaced their six trailers with the warehouse building that houses the Reuse Center today. In 2008, approximately 800 doors, 400 windows, and 50 kitchen-cabinet sets found new homes via the clean and orderly aisles of the Reuse Center. Boston Building Resources also sold more than 500 composters produced by the Massachusetts EPA and 250 rain barrels constructed of 55-gallon plastic containers that had been previously used for food storage. The unquestionable success of the organization demonstrates a demand for secondhand materials in good condition — and proof that more designers, contractors, and clients are following the advice of director Matthew St. Onge: “Think reuse before new.”

For more information, including donation guidelines, visit: For a directory of North American reuse centers, salvage yards, and deconstruction specialists, visit:


It may take a sociologist, or perhaps a psychologist, to one day explain the cultural puzzlement that is best described as the Modern Revival. Other architectural revivals have allowed a decent interval of at least a century to pass before dusting off pre-used forms and devices. But the current fascination with all things midcentury has barely skipped a generation. It’s the design equivalent of boomers and their kids all knowing the words to “Satisfaction.”

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

This fascination is especially evident in the growing interest in midcentury furniture. Although many of these designs have been in continual production, Dwell magazine (founded in 2000) and the national retailer Design Within Reach (founded in 1999) introduced names such as Breuer, Nelson, and Eames to a new, younger audience, while simultaneously demonstrating how their furniture could fit a 21st-century lifestyle.

They have also given momentum to what might sound like an oxymoron: vintage Modern. Jane Prentiss of Skinner, the venerable Boston auction house, first noticed the trend around 1990, when many of her clients — boomer professionals who were collecting fine arts and antiques — began to buy the original midcentury furniture they remembered from their childhoods for their own teenage and 20-something children. “Because they themselves enjoyed collecting,” she remembers, “they wanted to find something that their children would like, as a way of connecting with them.” Prentiss established Skinner’s 20th Century Design department at that time, which now runs at least two auctions a year (the next is March 27).

Retailer Normand Mainville noticed the interest, too, opening Machine Age in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area in 1991 to sell vintage Modern furniture; a large part of his business then was providing period props for the movie industry. Today, many of his customers are “visual people” — artists, architects, photographers; some are serious collectors, while others are young people just starting out. And competition has blossomed, both locally and nationally (not to mention regular listings on Craigslist).

So why the interest in used furniture? Why would someone buy an old Eames chair when they could buy a nice fresh new one? “Presence,” Mainville answers. His customers appreciate the authenticity and history of the furniture, as well as the sense that these pieces are often unique and more personal.

Cost can be a factor, too. While rare or unusual pieces can command impressive prices (such as the 1973 George Nakashima table that Prentiss recently sold for $213,000), some are less expensive than their new counterparts, and frequently less expensive than the goods sold by mass-market furniture retailers.

Prentiss casts the trend against a larger social context. Much of the furniture fits today’s informal lifestyles; young people especially embrace it as “theirs.” Buyers of all ages are attracted to the quality and craftsmanship, as well as the rarity of some materials such as woods that are no longer available. And, she notes, buying previously owned furniture is inherently sustainable.

As concerns about sustainability permeate our culture and influence our values, it’s hard not to wonder if vintage Modern furniture will serve as gateway antiques, introducing a new generation to a marketplace that currently bemoans the graying of its customer base. Prentiss notes that her department has brought new buyers to Skinner, who often branch out to other interests, most notably Native American and ethnographic objects, vintage jewelry, and American folk art.

Can New England antique furniture be far behind? Designed and handcrafted by local makers using local materials without oil-based synthetics or noxious off-gassing, recycled across generations, and often available at prices far less than any new furniture, these pieces embody the very essence of sustainable values. Buying a New Hampshire Chippendale tiger-maple desk might soon seem like a very modern idea.


In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart popularized the concept of managed product lifecycles, changing how we think about the things we buy. Cradle to Cradle proposes a future where commerce achieves both economic prosperity and environmental responsibility by closing material loops. So-called “service systems” supply consumers with televisions, computers, and home appliances — by leasing in lieu of selling — and shift the burdens of maintenance and disposal back to the service provider. Goods that might otherwise be discarded are instead “remanufactured” — refurbished, reused, or recycled into new products. While conceptually appealing, in practice these systems sometimes struggle to find their feet.

Photo by © Alexei Novikov.

Photo by © Alexei Novikov.

Service systems are common in business-to-business (B2B) transactions where tax deductions on rental fees are often more appealing than acquiring depreciating assets like copiers and printers. Similar systems have struggled in household markets, where end-users value the concept of ownership and aren’t afforded the same tax advantages. Electrolux tried renting washing machines to homeowners in Sweden, charging on a per-wash-cycle basis; the units were reclaimed, refurbished, and resold at the end of the trial. It failed, as household consumers could buy comparable products at similar cost through various credit plans, allowing them to keep the product after the payments ended.

The “car sharing” company, Zipcar, has shown, however, that it is possible to reverse consumer sentiment. It capitalizes on the hassle and expense of owning a car in the city, turning nonownership into a desirable lifestyle choice, making it hip to Zip.

In Japan, where consumers pay high fees to dispose of appliances, manufacturers developed cooperative reclamation and recycling infrastructures in response to tightening legislation. Matsushita’s Eco Technology Centre went beyond recycling, by using the disassembly process as a diagnostic for new products. It assesses the ease of disassembly and recycling, and reports suggestions back to designers, so new units are easier to process.

Caterpillar and Xerox have led industry efforts to “design for loops.” Caterpillar’s highly profitable Remanufacturing Division inspects, cleans, rebuilds, repairs, recycles, and resells end-of-life machinery parts. To reclaim profitable volumes of material, it charges customers a deposit that as much as doubles the price of the part. The financial incentive of returning the product creates a reclamation rate of 93 percent, supporting the division’s $1 billion annual revenue.

Xerox has also been very successful in remanufacturing, claiming certain photocopiers have seven lives, with six diversions from landfill. Its B2B rental of reprographic equipment creates a controlled distribution of products, where Xerox can easily take back a unit at the end of its service contract. The company’s innovation is to design products specifically for disassembly and reuse of parts. Caterpillar and Xerox have both sought external expertise in remanufacturing, but found limited supporting research in business and design schools.

Despite some successes, the state of the service-system approach to commerce shows that, while altruistic and environmental motivations have created some convincing marketing stories, good intentions haven’t had enough leverage to warp the prevailing cradle-to-grave business paradigms into closed loops. The success of existing models has hinged on financial incentives, legal penalties, and the coincidental, idyllic conditions of niche markets to trigger innovative approaches to design and business. Perhaps both industry and government will take lessons from current leaders and propel mainstream business up the learning curve of a new economy. Until then, Cradle to Cradle’s concept of a self-sustaining industrial cycle will remain in its infancy.


Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

What do 50 Cent, Bette Midler, Michael Pollan, and Mel King have in common?

A documented love for the transformative power of gardens.

Gardens offer one of the most elemental forms of reuse. Dead leaves and discarded coffee grounds become compost that help wrinkled, dry seeds sprout to shiny green life. Community gardens also recharge neighborhoods, transforming vacant lots and neglected parcels into well-tended places. The City of Boston has 150 community gardens, nearly all of them on properties that were once abandoned.

The practice of reusing vacant urban land for gardens began in the United States during the economic depression of 1893. The mayor of Detroit — a city particularly hard hit by the downfall of the railroad industry — asked owners of vacant land at the city’s periphery to allow the unemployed to grow potatoes. Other cities, including Boston, soon created similar “allotment” gardens of their own. As Sam Bass Warner outlines in To Dwell is To Garden, the presence of urban gardens ebbed and flowed from allotment gardens to schoolyard gardens to the “victory” gardens of WWI and WWII, and all were top-down, government-sponsored forms of philanthropy.

Today’s bottom-up, community-based approach began in the 1970s, “the child of new politics and abandoned city land,” in Warner’s words. The new politics grew from Civil Rights-era neighborhood activism, further fueled by the first Earth Day and then an energy crisis. The vacant land was a byproduct of the midcentury suburban exodus; even Boston’s population shrank by 20 percent in two decades, leaving behind hundreds of empty properties. In 1974, as a state representative, Boston activist Mel King sponsored legislation to allow gardeners to use vacant public land at no cost; in 1976, Mayor Kevin White channeled federal community-development block grant dollars into the creation of 20 gardens. Unimpressed by government management and wanting to be part of the planning process, a handful of individuals from different neighborhoods founded Boston Urban Gardeners (now the Boston Natural Areas Network) — a citizen-based advocacy coalition. Neighborhoods established gardens at an extraordinary rate: by 1982, there were 120 in Boston. In the midst of profound racial tensions and the busing crisis, boarded-up buildings and urban renewal, community gardens offered a place for people of any age or ethnicity to declare a hopeful attitude toward their city through the most humble of means, while providing affordable food and flowers in return. They still do.

What’s new now? Waiting lists to join Boston gardens have tripled in the past few years. There’s a hipness to 21st-century urban gardening. The graying ’70s activists, recent immigrants, and well-intentioned college students have been joined by locavores and Michael Pollan devotees, Martha Stewart/Patti Moreno do-it-yourself types, and Alice Waters wannabes. In the Great Recession of our day, those seeking cheaper alternatives to grocery-store produce have again taken up neighborhood gardening, as have (apparently) multi-millionaire rappers. In 2010, the community garden is once more a source of neighborhood renewal and a dynamic example of true common ground.

What else is different now? Green thumb or not, popular attitudes toward city living have changed. In part due to efforts like community gardens, urban neighborhoods are again a destination.

Lending a Library

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009


The Lurker

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The project: A collaboration between a team of students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and several community groups to design and build a temporary storefront branch library in Boston’s Chinatown. The neighborhood has been without a library since 1956, when the local branch was torn down to accommodate a proposed Central Artery route that was later changed.

The idea: Give the community a taste of the services and focal point a library would provide — and begin to create the desire, support, and momentum that could lead to a permanent branch library.

The workplace: A group of four desks on the otherwise mostly deserted top floor of the GSD. Already, at 10 o’clock on a summer morning, the place is sweltering; the days of heedless air conditioning are long gone. In the middle of the desks is a large chipboard model of one of the library’s undulating shelving units. Next to it is a smaller model representing the entire space. All the design elements are modular, so they can be dismantled and reused when the installation closes.

10:05 Marrikka Trotter, the team leader, who recently earned a master’s degree in design studies from Harvard, talks with student Matt Swaidan about generating a workflow chart to track the remaining fabrication and the installation of the project elements. She mentions she’ll be away for a few days at the end of next month, returning on the 27th.

“My birthday,” Matt says.

“You’re getting old, man.”

“Yeah, I’ve doubled my gray hairs this year.”

“I’ve got some real streaks now. It was my thesis that did it.”

10:10 Jungmin Nam, another student, arrives, and Marrikka draws him into the flow-chart discussion. The schedule is tight. As fall approaches, the team will lose access to the workspace and equipment in the GSD. People have out-of-town commitments. There’s been a delay in obtaining construction materials — a promised early donation turned out to be smaller than expected, and finding another donor took time. Figuring out how to cut MDF, a kind of fiberboard, for stable shelving units has also been tricky.

10:20 Discussion of whether to try cutting Lumasite acrylic panels for display units with the drill bit they already have, or take time to order a bit specifically tested for this material. Jungmin asks Marrikka to explain the decision to use Lumasite. “I thought we were going with polypropylene.”

“There were life-safety issues. If polypropylene ignites, the fumes can close off people’s lungs in seconds. So we have to use Lumasite, which is safe.” She smiles. “And much nicer.”

10:40 Matt, who has carpentry experience, recommends they wait for the right equipment to cut the Lumasite. A slight delay is better than the risk of blowing a drill bit. He goes to order the piece, while Marrikka and Jungmin talk about lighting. She’s concerned about the brightness of the overhead fluorescents. “We’ll have to take out some bulbs.”

“I like a bright library,” he says.

“But this isn’t going to be warm and glowy, it’s going to be cold and glowy. Though it will help that everything else is in a warm palette.”

10:47 Thinking ahead to the installation schedule, involving the design team as well as other student volunteers, Marrikka and Jungmin look at a computer rendering of the sinuous curving ceiling sculpture. She points. “For this piece, we’ll need people who really know the design and what they’re doing. But this” — pointing at another piece of the design — “just needs hands. Brute labor.”

She asks him to get a sample of steel wire to suspend the sculpture from, so they can test it for strength. “Also, maybe you could make a model of the whole thing.”

String, for the model? They decide on fishing line.

11:02 “Casters,” Marrikka says. A GSD professor critiqued the design last week, and pointed out that the MDF shelving and seating units would be heavy; casters would prevent them from sinking into the carpet tile. Marrikka and Jungmin look at an online catalog, comparing mechanisms and bearing capacities of various casters.

11:17 They choose one, noting that it will raise the heights of seating units by 40 millimeters — a change that, to achieve ADA compliance, will require a comparable change in the height of the work surfaces.

11:20 Casters that lock versus casters that don’t.

12:30 Marrikka explains the schedule to Shelby Doyle, a new member of the team, who has just stopped by. Shelby is tied up right now with research and the production of a student handbook, but she can put in more time at the beginning of next month.

“It would be especially good if you could help with upholstery,” Marrikka says. She lowers her voice. “The boys are scared of fabric.”

1:15 Downstairs, in the basement wood shop, Matt has spent the past hour on the computer, using a program called Rhino to lay out a new router cutting diagram for the MDF sheets, based on last week’s prototypes. He’s made minuscule adjustments to the cutting allowances for grooved tabs that will hold the shelves together — .020" was too jiggly and compromised the stability of the units, but .018" was too tight and would have made insertion almost impossible, especially given the propensity of the material to swell. As a carpenter, Matt was happy if he could achieve tolerances of 1/64", so working with these infinitesimal thousandths is new and fascinating to him, as is working with the computer-controlled CNC router. He transfers his Rhino diagram to the MasterCam program, which interfaces with the router.

1:20 Matt turns on the router, programmed to channel out shelf grooves to accommodate the Lumasite panels. Behind the glass wall, the router begins to roar and wave its tentacles over the MDF sheet lying on the table.

1:27 The grooves are done. Matt changes the drill bit for a thicker one, and the router begins cutting the curved outlines of the shelving units.

1:49 Back upstairs, team member Trevor Patt is showing Marrikka a computer diagram for Inspectional Services, depicting the spatial relationships between the curved ceiling sculpture and the lighting fixtures. “I think that’s just the right level of detail,” she tells him.

2:18 A rep from the carpet company stops by. The students love a pearl-gray carpet tile with a subtly ridged texture; they’d lay it in a basket-weave pattern inspired by the pebble paving at the Chinese house at the Peabody Essex Museum. The carpet company is willing to give them a great deal, but the students still need to find a donor to cover the cost. The other option is to accept a carpet installer’s offer to donate miscellaneous leftover tiles in assorted colors: free but ugly. Marrikka asks the rep about lead time for ordering. The answer: Five days. Marrikka: “So we don’t have to decide this week. We can let it play out.”

2:25 Shelby stops by again. She has 15 minutes — is there anything she can do? Yes: a handwritten thank-you note. Marrikka hands her an envelope and the address of a plastering company that has donated to the project.

2:39 Jungmin has talked to a wire company in Brockton. He’s thinking of going there now to look at samples.

Marrikka explains that Brockton is pretty far away. “We’ll figure out how to get you there another day. For now, I’d just start the mockup.”

Jungmin says there is a certain wire he thinks would be best, but there’s another one that might work too —

“We’ll get all those samples when we get you to Brockton. But for now, let’s do the mockup.”

2:50 A student named Damon who has not been involved with the project is standing by Trevor’s desk, intrigued by the diagram of the ceiling sculpture, which will be made of curved Lumasite panels suspended from wire. “Why wire?” Damon asks. “What if there was something more like a sheet-metal clip?”

“What what?” Marrikka asks, overhearing.

He sketches on a piece of paper.

“What about the weight of the clips?” she asks. “And how do you maintain the curve?”

3:12 After a discussion — Marrikka advocating for wire, and Trevor and Damon paring down and refining the clip idea — Trevor picks up an X-acto knife and cuts a quick paper model of the clip.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” they all say.

Marrikka: “But why can’t we do the same thing with wire?”

Trevor: “I just don’t like wire.”

Marrikka: “This is irrational. What has wire ever done to you?”

3:28 Discussion of how sharp the edges of the clips will be after they are waterjetted. Marrikka is concerned about the safety of the installers. “And we should figure out how much sheet metal we’ll need. Is there a piece of metal downstairs we could use for testing?”

3:30 Marrikka asks Trevor if he’s had lunch. He hasn’t. She has to suggest several times that he go; he’s still thinking about the clip.

3:50 Matt comes back upstairs. The MDF prototype broke; several design details are clashing and weakening the piece. He’ll rework the tongue-and-groove joint and will run a new test piece tomorrow. They pore over the schedule again.

4:29 Marrikka reminds Trevor, who is sitting at his desk finishing a sandwich, that they need to finish the Inspectional Services diagram by the end of the day.

“But it’s lunchtime,” he says.

4:35 Trevor asks Marrikka if she’s checked her e-mail in the last two minutes.


“It’s Damon. He says he can’t get our Lumasite things out of his head and he’s drawn up a new detail and put it on CAD.”

4:41 “It’s 4:41,” Marrikka murmurs to herself. She turns to Matt, who has just come back to his desk. “What can you do for 20 minutes?”

“I’ll figure something out.”

Caption: Photo by Joan Wickersham

Channel Center, Fort Point

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 17, 2009


Other Voices

My six-year old neighbor most accurately describes what’s different about living in an artists building. He says, “All the grownups will play with you.”

Our particular building, Midway Studios, is discipline-diverse. The live/work lofts house artists of all kinds: painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, poets, filmmakers, actors, dancers, and musicians; several collaborations (and my current employment) have started with conversations in the elevator. To rent here, you must be certified as a Boston artist through an anonymous review process administered by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. This helps ensure the caliber of work produced — we are home to two Guggenheim award-winners and several published authors. Apart from peer pressure, this is an incentive to make serious work, since certifications are periodically renewed and required for housing. Cease to meet the standards and you must move out.

Loft living is not ideal for all artists. It is expensive, and the changing development landscape makes our future uncertain. Some people leave because they can’t get their kids into local schools; some simply yearn for green space. We have few conventional features here and have forged a kind of artificial environment to create a more balanced reality.

When there is a snowstorm, Fort Point is quiet and unplowed — perfect conditions for cross-country skiing. Phones ring and text messages go out with invitations to venture outside. Making our way across parking lots and along the Harbor, we discuss city politics, our families, national news. We talk about the changing neighborhood, bet on which developments will actually get finished, reminisce about the old days over hot chocolate.

Mostly we extend invitations for shorter trips — to the hardware store, to do laundry, to have a glass of wine. Summer brings other invitations, for activities that might seem more at home in a traditional New England town. We have a neighborhood softball league and hold potluck barbecues on rooftops. We sometimes paddle through the locks and up the Charles River in kayaks kept in parking garages. A movie series is screened outdoors onto sheets in our tiny park; the previews are often our own short films, and some of the most popular features are Hollywood films we have written or acted in or movies that have been shot in Fort Point (Adaptation, Gone Baby Gone, The Departed).

We compensate for living and working in one room by treating the neighborhood geography like a large house. Landmarks are referred to as if they were rooms. A group of us meet for coffee most mornings in “the kitchen,” a spot on the banks of the Channel. We talk about recent openings, share recipes and advice. We play nicely, although envy or long-standing grudges about being passed over for a show are occasionally revealed over scones. Our “great room” is a local bar with ’70s paneling, a piano and TV, and — always — familiar faces. We sometimes buy milk there, or even the occasional tomato or piece of fruit, from sympathetic staff who understand the cold cruelty of a long late-night walk to the 7-Eleven on the Harbor. Barter is official currency in Fort Point, and we extensively trade services and artwork in exchange for food or equipment.

Some of us are here because we don’t fit anywhere else. The eccentricities of our work life — “days” that begin at 7 pm, the tendency to go out in public in torn, paint-stained clothes — aren’t well tolerated by most people. Some of us are here because we’ve been kicked out of studio space, marriages, or countries. If you are broken, Fort Point is a good place to get put back together.

It’s like living in a village full of extended family. We’re related by art. Generations are marked by the date you settle here, lineage determined by your standing in the art world. Like most families, our clan is strange (but reliable), and occasionally susceptible to squabbles and cliques. But you always have a place at the table if you want to come down for dinner.

Photo by Eric Levin; concept by Rob Smith.