Covering the Issues

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

Periodical Roundup

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Fast CompanyCityscapes… Fast Company (May 2010) offers multiple visions for the urban future. In the print magazine, the annual “Fast Cities 2010” list highlights progressive ideas already in place — a smart power grid in Boulder, innovative neighborhood redevelopment funding in Savannah, artist housing in Boston. Online, Greg Lindsay reports from the 18th annual Congress for the New Urbanism convention where the US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it will rate projects for “location efficiency” (such as residential density and public-transit access) and the new LEED-ND principles when it makes its $3 billion funding decisions this year; HUD aims to influence the entire housing market. In “Save the Cities, Save the World,” Lindsay reports on urban designer Peter Calthorpe’s similar ambition. Calthorpe is developing software that “quantifies the savings in CO2 and dollars” when development follows denser urban patterns. The analysis will inform debate over California’s proposed legislation to reduce emission levels (a model for national policy), while it makes an economic case for urban planning as part of the solution to climate change. Finally, in “New Urbanism for the Apocalypse,” Lindsay describes New Urbanism founder Andrés Duany’s spin on the urban-agriculture idea: “agrarian urbanism.” Imagine a golf-course community jettisoned to the early 19th century: instead of 18 holes, developers would simply finance greens of a different sort.

Strategy + BusinessFurnishing ideas… In “Herman Miller’s Design for Growth” (Strategy + Business, Summer 2010), Bill Birchard presents an in-depth look at the innovative management practices of this office-furniture giant. Calling it “participatory management,” Herman Miller gives business workshops to employees at all levels, issues bonuses for team effectiveness, and leads ongoing research on the future of the workplace, as it develops new products — like LED walls — that strive to address practical problems rather than fitting into pre-established product categories. From Charles and Ray Eames to Boston’s Sheila Kennedy, Herman Miller has long collaborated directly with architects and designers. In designing furniture, it has also designed a company.

Consider the spider… Spiders make silk that is ounce-for-ounce stronger than steel, without blast furnaces. What if, instead of traditional “heat, beat, and treat” ways of making things, we were to take cues from the natural world? “Nature is the Model Factory,” argues Michael Freedman in Newsweek (online, May 28, 2010). He chronicles current architectural and material science research: self-cleaning properties of lotus leaves are being studied for exterior paints; airflow in a new non-air-conditioned building in Africa is modeled after termite mounds; forest canopies and tree roots are being analyzed to inspire roofs and foundation systems, respectively. It’s a wild and wonderful world.

Vanity FairPolling data…”What is the most important piece of architecture built since 1980?” Vanity Fair (August 2010) asked 90 leading architects, educators, and critics. Their runaway winner? The Guggenheim Bilbao by Frank Gehry. One respondent likens the influence of this single work to Le Corbusier’s 1923 manifesto, Towards a New Architecture. Matt Tyrnauer examines this reaction and others in “Architecture in the Age of Gehry.” Equally interesting is the lack of consensus on the other “important” works, revealing the rather complex legacy of Modernism. Slideshows of all 21 “modern marvels” are published online, along with Gehry’s other works and the complete results of who voted for what. Architecture in the age of American Idol.

The importance of being glam… Wellesley professor Alice T. Friedman tackles Eero Saarinen, popularity, and the importance of image in “Modern Architecture for the ‘American Century’” (Places Journal, posted June 22, 2010). While seeking a unique form for every project, Saarinen explored new technologies and materials, emphasizing “circulation, framing, and sensual experiences.” His clients loved it. The critics were mixed. In this excerpt from her new book, American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, Friedman offers a thorough re-evaluation of Saarinen’s work and the mid-century criticism it received, and in doing so, discusses the role of American architecture in an era led by corporations.

Covering the Issues

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

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Periodical Roundup

Business Week cover

Fasten your seat belts… The housing crisis may be improving, but big problems in the commercial real-estate industry still loom, according to a BusinessWeek cover story (November 16, 2009). The statistics are staggering. Mara Der Jovanesian and Dean Foust report that “between now and 2012, more than $1.4 trillion worth of commercial real-estate loans will come due,” while perhaps as many as three-quarters of the loans made during the height of the bubble will face trouble refinancing. Thirty US cities now have at least $1 billion in “troubled” commercial loans, up from only one a year ago. Jovanesian and Foust predict the market won’t fully recover for at least another decade.

Fast Company cover

It’s a reach… Jeff Chu sends up a scathing account of “The Rise and Fall of Design Within Reach” (Fast Company, December 2009). Founded in the Time Before Dwell, Design Within Reach helped make Eames a household name via an online store and glossy catalogue that seemed to teach us about good design as much as it sold us furniture. Oh, life was so easy then. Fast-forward through an enormous retail-store expansion, multiple management transitions, an economic crash, and some eye-poppingly questionable DWR-sponsored knockoffs of signature design pieces (lawsuits included), and the glossy sheen is long gone.

The Atlantic cover

Home, sweet home… The nation’s most innovative experiment in housing design and urban life is happening in New Orleans, suggests Wayne Curtis in “Houses of the Future” (The Atlantic, November 2009). Independent developers have stepped into the void left by federal government inaction. Curtis profiles five programs producing houses that exemplify both utopian thinking and real-world innovation in formal design, environmental performance, financing, community participation, and self-construction. Though Andres Duany and the Tulane School of Architecture play pivotal roles, Curtis makes a strong case for the projects sponsored by Brad Pitt as the most ambitious and inventive of the bunch. And in the end, New Orleans offers a fascinating hybrid: the projects getting built are neither completely grassroots nor Robert Moses-style planning, and some of the most profound sustainable lessons are being learned from the old, pre-storm architecture.

The New York Review cover

Seventh-inning stretch… Ostensibly, art critic Michael Kimmelman has written a review of Dana Brand’s The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan for The New York Review of Books (November 19, 2009). But the delightful reality is that Kimmelman has actually written a lively, passionate, personal essay on the architecture of the new New York ballparks as only a lifelong fan can (the new Yankee stadium is “a big, pompous stage”). The lulls in the game — which provide time to reflect on the big questions of life, such as what the pitcher’s next move might be — have been replaced by forced entertainment, fancy food in $1,000 seats, and shopping opportunities. Amid all the expensive noise of conspicuous consumption, what does this new generation of ballparks miss? Community. Shea’s immense concrete donut never looked so good.

Green Lite… Are LEED-rated buildings measuring up to their energy-performing promises? Not entirely, according to two new reports that Jennie Rothenberg Gritz discusses in “The Green Façade” (The Atlantic, online “Dispatch,” November 24, 2009). In one fall 2009 report, editor and LEED founder Rob Watson states that, despite good performance in other areas, LEED buildings are not producing energy savings as expected. Chicago’s USGBC chapter issued a similar report last fall, stating that LEED-certified buildings in Illinois were performing only 5 percent better than their non-LEED cousins, less than 30 percent of LEED-certified projects met Energy Star standards, and a full 75 percent of energy-modeled buildings fell short of predictions. Why? The problems lie in the mix-and-match point system, and the lack of incentives to measure or improve daily energy performance. With new LEED certification guidelines for operation and management of existing buildings, change may be coming.

Covering the Issues

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

Periodical Roundup

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A patchwork landscape… Designers and developers must navigate 351 different versions of planning and zoning laws in Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns. That’s about 350 too many, according to Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development. In “Getting to Yes” (CommonWealth, Summer 2009), Gabrielle Gurley covers Bialecki’s current quest to “modernize the Bay State’s notoriously obtuse, decades-old planning and zoning statues.” Stay tuned.

Change a bulb, save a bird… Approximately one billion birds die in the United States every year by crashing into buildings, according to a 2008 Boston Globe article. Building trends favoring natural light (clearer glass, and more of it) and green roofs only increase the trouble, even though killing wildlife by “sustainable” architecture has obvious contradictions. Rebecca Kessler describes a similar problem of migrating birds disoriented by the bright lights of North Sea oil rigs, along with a simple fix: change the bulbs. In “Red Light, Green Light” in Conservation Magazine (Summer 2009), Kessler reports that at test locations, a mix of red and green lights has decreased bird collisions by up to 90 percent, concluding that this strategy might be adopted for other structures, too.

New Yorker

Prime people-watching… There’s been a lively discussion of New York City’s newest public spaces — the High Line and Times Square — providing fodder for Bostonians still coming to grips with our own Greenway. In “Up in the Park” (The New York Review of Books, August 13, 2009), Martin Filler offers a brief history of the reuse of obsolete civil engineering works for park-like purposes, warning that our nation has lots of aging infrastructure to reckon with. The acclaimed High Line and the newly closed streets of Times Square haven’t been equally well received. As Lauren Collins quips in “Zoo York” (The New Yorker, September 14, 2009), “Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ has become a still-life.” In “The Art of Public Space” (The Nation, August 12, 2009), Benjamin Barber makes a plea for artists to help shape this new Times Square. On Broadway, as on the Greenway, eliminating car traffic is only the beginning.

The hangover… As it turns out, the fake islands, indoor ski slope, and rising skyscraper forest of Dubai were indeed not sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. In “Exodus,” Fast Company (September 2009) offers a look at this former hotbed of construction activity after the world’s financial meltdown. Lauren Greenfield’s photographs offer a sobering view of abandoned project sites, withering landscapes, and the possessions and people left behind.

The Atlantic

Undeterred… This isn’t the first time that the White House has taken an interest in all things green and eco-friendly. In “Better Luck Next Time” (The Atlantic, July/ August 2009), senior editor Joshua Green looks carefully at President Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated 1977 White House solar panels, explaining what went wrong with environmentalism then, and tracing the intersection of funding, innovation, and policy to the current day. For anyone interested in or affected by the environmental legislation being debated in Congress or Copenhagen, this thoughtful, accessible, substantive piece is a must-read.

And now for something completely different… Orson Squire Fowler was the nation’s leading phrenologist when he began to advocate for octagonal houses, leading by example. Huh? Phrenology — studying the contours of the head to deduce a person’s personality — was wildly popular in 19th-century America. Like an Oprah before her time, Fowler also traveled, lectured, and wrote, commenting on a vast array of topics — memory, women’s fitness, overpopulation, sex, compost — all in the name of reform. In “The Joys of the Octagonal Home” (Believer, May 2009), author John Adamian suggests that Fowler’s interest in lifestyle and his study of shapes coalesced in architectural propositions. Fowler believed that octagonal houses promoted circulation of air and people, while maximizing area within an efficient envelope. Though Fowler’s been forgotten (along with phrenology), the octagonal structures that still scatter the Northeast countryside bear witness to his influence.