Design Biennial Boston 2010

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

Allandale House by William O’Brien Jr.

pinkcomma gallery, Boston—April 30–June 10, 2010

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Mark Pasnik and Chris Grimley are two men on a mission. As the directors of pinkcomma gallery and self-proclaimed guides to Boston’s “design underground,” they are dedicated to showcasing a new generation of talented architects and designers in the city. In more than a dozen small and provocative shows since the gallery’s opening in 2007, they have demonstrated that the design culture of Boston is vibrant and energized beyond the walls of the area architecture schools.

Their ambitious and most recent initiative is the first Design Biennial, curated with Michael Kubo, featuring a juried selection of five emerging practices. Highlights of the exhibition include the serenely beautiful geometric study of an A-frame house by William O’Brien Jr., a spatially and materially ingenious back-lot house by Touloukian Touloukian, and a playful proposal to “graft” a community center onto the roof of a supermarket by Carla Ceruzzi and Ryan Murphy of C&MP. Dan Hisel’s Heavy/Light House makes visible the poetic potential of abandoned infrastructure and Gretchen Schneider’s “Making Time Visible” project, which draws the footprint of Scollay Square onto City Hall Plaza, creates a simultaneous understanding of past and present city structure.

A snapshot of the preoccupations of this generation of Boston architects at this moment in time reveals an interest in “smart design” enabled by digital technology, an innovative exploration of craft and the sensual and tactile qualities of building, and a reflection on history concurrent with an enthusiasm for the future. The exhibition presents images from different architects side-by-side, making it difficult to grasp a coherent view of each author’s work. But the pleasure of unexpected visual connections between projects is worth the experiment, as is the introduction of a welcome new event on the city’s design calendar.

Above: Allandale House by William O’Brien Jr.

Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight

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

Directed by Wendy Keys, DVD (73 minutes), New Video Group, 2010

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Milton Glaser: To Inform and DelightThis aptly titled documentary offers a portrait of one of the most revered graphic designers of our time. Who hasn’t seen Milton’s “I ♥ NY” campaign or his iconic Dylan poster? As a co-founder of Push Pin Studios in 1954, Glaser, along with his cohorts, provided a truly American counter-point to the prevailing Swiss design ethos by incorporating idea-based illustration into publishing and branding projects.

Clever, articulate, and charming, Glaser is the movie’s greatest asset, and director Wendy Keys doesn’t skimp on his colorful commentary and anecdotes from his 60-year career as a thinking artist, designer, teacher, mentor, and New Yorker. At the heart of Glaser’s appeal is his love of drawing, employed in both his commercial work and fine-art projects.

While the strait-laced moviemaking may not adequately reflect the creativity of Glaser’s impressive output, it’s near-impossible not to be won over by his love and respect for his chosen profession, which is amply returned: Everyone ♥s Milton.

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Home Work: Contemporary Housing Delivery Systems

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

Northeastern University, April 3, 2010

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Although this conference was called Home Work: Contemporary Housing Delivery Systems, it could have been called The Search for the Holy Grail. The allusion, made only half in jest, captures the idealistic belief of many of those presenting: armed with the right high-style, low-cost building systems, architects can reclaim the housing design kingdom lost to bottom-line builders and developers.

The first of three panels looked at the history and mythologies of architect-designed prefabricated housing. Efficient production, they suggested, can bring Modernism to the masses and create an authentic contemporary vernacular. Peter Christensen, curator of MoMA’s 2008 prefab housing exhibition, Karrie Jacobs, former editor of Dwell magazine, and Matthew Littell of Utile provided a survey of the technical explorations, formal investigations, and utopian aspirations that have inspired and frustrated designers for generations.

The second panel presented four delivery systems based on very different models. Houston-based Hometta sells stock house plans by up-and-coming young Modernist architects — for up-and-coming young Modernist buyers missing the money for a custom design. Bluhomes manufactures panelized houses that can be ordered online and unfolded on site. And Northeastern’s Peter Wiederspahn is developing e3Co, a foam-block and plywood building system reminiscent of larger-than-life Legos.

Joe Tanney of Res4Arch offered the most convincing evidence that prefabrication can help architects battle the purveyors of vinyl-clad Colonials. His custom-designed modules are based on a rigorous analysis of programmatic needs and production constraints; over the past decade, he has produced a stunning series of completed houses. Abstract but accessible, well-appointed but affordable, they hint that the Holy Grail might be within reach.

The third panel, however, laid out the vast terrain still to be conquered. Affordable-housing developer Peter Roth described the economic and political challenges that tend to defy architectural solutions. Architecture department chairman George Thrush and conference organizer Ivan Rupnik contrasted the single-family focus of the prefab effort with the need for a broad range of multifamily options. And David Wax of Free Green reminded the room full of designers that they can’t create their own markets but must respond to ones that exist. Good intentions and great design may not be sufficient to fight the dark forces controlling development — and to deliver the iHouse Thrush suggested we should be searching for.

The Universe In A Garden

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

Photo courtesy Charles Jencks

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Lecture by Charles Jencks (October 7, 2009); Gardens & Spirit Series, co-sponsored by Trinity Church and the Arnold Arboretum

What is a garden? By today’s standards, the notion of a garden seems naïve, vaguely old-fashioned, or at best pleasantly restorative. Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt informs us that the Roman orator Cicero described the cultural landscape of bridges, roads, harbors, and fields as “second nature,” implying a first nature of landscape untouched by humans. Before moving on to gastronomy, writer Michael Pollan gave his wonderful account of fighting entropy in his own suburban Connecticut garden in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991). Sixteenth-century Italy introduced the concept of “third nature” — art incorporated into nature. The notions of second and third nature speak to the balance struck between human order and natural chaos, and the definition of that balance becomes the personal expression of the gardener.

On October 7, architectural historian, writer, and designer Charles Jencks presented his private landscape, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Located at Portrack House near Dumfries in southwest Scotland, the garden began as a creative joint venture with his late wife, Maggie Keswick, on her family estate. Images of the steeply sloped, grass-covered landforms sinuously enclosing lobe-shaped pools of water have become the widely recognized images of the garden, reproduced in coffee-table books of “radical” landscapes since its construction in 1989. To this first project, Jencks has continued to add new vignettes of garden spaces, so now the visitor experiences an episodic journey of garden rooms — based on themes of modern physics, mathematics, and science — rather than a broad, continuous landscape.

Prior to Portrack’s relatively recent step onto the world stage, the most celebrated Scottish garden was Little Sparta, the garden of the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jencks’ “neighbor” 70 kilometers to the north. Referring to Little Sparta, Finlay quipped, “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.” These two private gardens, carved out of the Scottish landscape, offer much to consider about the nature of gardens — their meaning and manufacture, as well as their authors.

Taking Finlay’s definition of the garden as either retreat or attack, it is interesting that for the agoraphobic Finlay the garden was an attack, filled with metaphorical sculpture and pointed, iconographic references to politics, philosophy, anarchy, and landscape history. For Jencks — who found fame through his prolific writing and lecturing on postmodernism in the late 1970s and 1980s — the garden is a retreat from the world stage and perhaps from personal loss. While Finlay’s garden alludes to the past, Jencks’ engages current and future relationships between humanity and nature as expressed in quantum physics, chaos theory, ideas of “strange attractors,” Solitan waves, and the Anthropic Principle of the universe’s genesis.

Like any creative endeavor, these works must be evaluated on their own terms, as landscapes outside of the meanings proposed by their authors. The rural Little Sparta, created within the context of the barren moors south of Edinburgh, is more successful, as it truly engages the full medium of landscape — topography, vegetation, climate, light, and place. Finlay’s sculpture, Nuclear Sail, a replica of a nuclear submarine’s conning tower, plies the “sea” of the grass-covered moor, and achieves a sense of the sublime in both the raw emotional power and scale of the moor, as well as the insidious threat of nuclear annihilation. In other places, tree trunks stand as columns with stone entablatures at their feet, commemorating a pantheon of philosophers. Other inscribed stone blocks stand in for grazing sheep in the pastoral fields of the farmhouse, a 20th-century interpretation of the English landscape garden.

Similar to Little Sparta, Portrack’s garden spaces and elements are an eclectic assembly of objects and ideas, but here are superficial referents to complex scientific theory, breaking from English garden traditions both in content and how they engage landscape as a medium for design. In several places, complex theories are simplistically applied as pattern, as in the case of the Black Hole or Fractal Terraces, or oddly freestanding as sculptural objects, as in the DNA Garden or in the wire tracing of subatomic particle explosion that fords a stream. While well crafted by local tradesmen and gardeners, the primary space is largely derivative of current landscape celebrities Kathryn Gustafson or George Hargreaves in the use of sinuous and geometric landform. The smaller gardens play a diminished, secondary role: they exist only as backdrops for the display of pseudo-scientific objects.

The garden is at its best where it is most allied to the landscape elements of earthwork, water, and woodland enclosure, in the landform garden. As it delves further into scientific symbolism and allegory, both the forms and the references become more simplistic and less successful. Pollan closes his essay on gardening saying, “Nature does tend toward entropy and dissolution, yes, yes, but I can’t help thinking she contains some countervailing tendency, too, some bent toward forms of ever-increasing complexity. Toward us and our creations, I mean. Toward me and this mower and the otherwise inexplicable beauty of a path in a garden.” In regard to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation as a work of landscape, this critic is left wanting more of the real entropy of the garden, and less of the theoretical.

The Design Research Installation

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

Design Research photo by Peter Vanderwarker

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48 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts

It is 1969, and I am finishing a B. Arch. degree at University of California, Berkeley.

When not in the studios, the action is at Sproul Plaza: People’s Park and Cody’s Books are the hot spots. My architecture hero is Christopher Alexander. The fashion on the street runs to Frye boots, tie-dye dresses, and headbands. I have a draft of the Whole Earth Catalogue.

I come back to Boston to visit a friend. I walk into Harvard Square, and there I see Ben Thompson’s glass-walled D/R building. It is sleek, transparent, and colorful. It is like a Corbu building on pilotis, but with more style.

Coming out are women in Marimekko dresses. They look as if they are wearing the architecture. They look impossibly modern. They threaten Berkeley and all it stands for, and this just will not do. In an act of supreme defiance, I take off my Frye boots and go buy some Earth Shoes.

It is 2009. I walk into Harvard Square. And there they are again: D/R, Marimekko, the colors, the people. It’s a marvelous temporary installation, put together by a volunteer team led by Jane Thompson, with the blessings of Bill Poorvu, the building owner. I’m going to go get my Frye boots out of the closet.

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Drawing Toward Home: Designs for Domestic Architecture from Historic New England

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

Unidentified suburban residence

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Boston University Art Gallery, November 18, 2009–January 17, 2010

National Building Museum, Washington, DC, February 13, 2010–August 15, 2010

A good architectural drawing creates what landscape painters call a moment. It illustrates something that in an instant resonates within us. With paintings, it is usually about a time or place that is iconic, as if we’ve known the place all along or were there at some point in our lives. As the drawings in this exhibition demonstrate, a good architectural drawing has that same capacity.

Beyond whatever artful quality they have, architectural drawings also require a certain correctness or scale to be useful. Whether a plan, an elevation, or a detail, all of the drawings in this exhibition are practical representations of an idea that was meant to be built. They had to accurately portray the whole house or a portion of it to clients or contractors and, by itself, that is often enough. But what is so significant here, and what elevates these drawings beyond mere representation, is their facility to give us the same moment that a good painting can give us.

Three drawings demonstrate the range of this show: one by Peabody and Stearns of a house in Newton (1875), one by Halfdon Hanson of a house in Gloucester (circa 1920), and another by Henry Hoover of a house in Lincoln (1968). Separated by only a few miles in Massachusetts but spread over almost a century in time, they couldn’t be more different stylistically. Yet all the drawings seem familiar and comfortable, as if one could move right in and occupy the house. Though the drawings in this exhibition span three centuries of domestic American architecture, that sense, or moment, is evident in all of them.

Top image: Unidentified suburban residence, 1930s, David J. Abrahams, architect. Courtesy Historic New England.

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Ephemera: reviews of lectures, exhibitions, and events of note

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


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A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—July 15–October 18, 2009

The American Arts and Crafts movement, once scorned as a nostalgic stepchild of European Romanticism, is now firmly enshrined in the architectural pantheon. Back in the 1960s, a friend rescued a signed Gustav Stickley table from a trash pile on a New York City street. That oak table would be a perfect companion piece to the furniture of California architects Greene & Greene recently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene designed 180 houses in the early 20th century, primarily in Pasadena. Their houses were gesamtkunstwerks in the manner of William Morris, H.H. Richardson, and Frank Lloyd Wright: the architects designed everything — the house, the landscape, all the furnishings, and anything else that complemented the cozy wood-joinery aesthetic.

Their masterpiece was the 1908 Gamble house (contemporary with Wright’s famed Robie house in Chicago), and lamps, chairs, and stained glass from this and several other key Greene & Greene works were handsomely displayed at the MFA. It may be impossible to extrapolate architectural space into a museum setting, but the exhibition included instructive sketches, drawings, and floor plans that offered insight into the Greenes’ design process. Unique to the show’s Boston stopover were some of the same influential Japanese ceramics that the Greenes, as MIT architecture students, saw at the old MFA.

The most curious artifact is the citation from the American Institute of Architects, from which the show’s New and Native title is taken. In 1952, decades after their pioneering work, the AIA patronizingly honored the Greenes for “emerging values in modern living in the western states,” noting that they had made “the name of California synonymous with simpler, freer, and more abundant living.” Some legacies are more enduring than others.

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Ada Louise Huxtable, Robert Campbell FAIA BSA

Conversations on Architecture, Boston Public Library—July 2, 2009


Ada Louise Huxtable by Bruce W. Stark; Robert Campbell FAIA by Peter Vanderwarker.

They just don’t make bully pulpits like they used to. The explosion of digital media has meant more choices and more voices — perhaps too many pulpits and certainly too many bullies — and a corresponding loss of authority. What a pleasure, then, to listen to Ada Louise Huxtable, who took advantage of a singular moment in media history to create the profession of architectural criticism from one of the nation’s bulliest of pulpits, The New York Times. As her interlocutor, Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell FAIA, noted in this special BSA “Conversations” event, Huxtable started at the Times in 1963 — when the books Silent Spring, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and The Feminine Mystique were launching their own revolutions. Her achievement was marked by a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 — the first awarded for criticism of any kind.

Today she is the architecture critic for The Wall Street Journal and author of a new anthology of essays, On Architecture. Her international authority remains unparalleled but was well matched in this lively discussion between two old friends, which left only one question: Will the blogosphere produce a new Huxtable?

Cities for Families: Designing Boston for Every Generation

Common Boston Weekend Forum—June 18, 2009

Eighteen extra hours with your children each week: that’s what Boston offers urban families. Paired with the highest cultural-asset-to-child ratio of any city worldwide, it’s a pretty persuasive argument for raising a family here.

These estimates, provided by Susan Silberberg-Smith of MIT and Lou Casagrande, past president of the Boston Children’s Museum, could seed some great marketing and promote the concept of livable cities for families, the focus of Common Boston’s 2009 forum.

Still, families choose to leave.

Living blissfully free of car and home maintenance with access to everything from museums to neighborhood babysitting swaps only works if you can easily reach them. Forum moderator Tom Keane, a Boston resident and the new executive director of the Boston Society of Architects, reported an hour-long morning ritual of driving his child to school.

Casagrande described Boston’s cultural assets as an “archipelago”: relatively isolated, connected only by congested and not particularly cyclist- or pedestrian-friendly streets, they don’t quite live up to their potential.

Landscape architects brought a different sensibility to the discussion. Shauna Gillies-Smith of Ground sees the spaces between buildings as opportunities for the exchange of ideas — places that could be designed to foster the safety that comes with what Jane Jacobs famously called “eyes on the street.” Jill Desimini of StoSS sees potential for grassroots planning, citing the bottom-up development of Amsterdam’s playgrounds.

Madeleine Steczynski, executive director of the East Boston after-school music program Zumix, highlighted ways that cities present a diversity of role models for children to emulate, unlike her own suburban upbringing. Zumix is one example, introducing young people to the music industry with everything from a recording studio to a radio station.

Suburban aspirations have deep roots in American history and culture. But there’s no doubt that a century of marketing acre-lot living has also shaped contemporary preferences, as demonstrated by often-amusing historical advertisements that Silberberg-Smith presented. If marketing has so influenced our current situation, perhaps it can help build a better future. We have a tradition of healthy urbanism to draw on as well.

Part of Common Boston’s annual neighborhood festival, the forum encourages dialogue between Boston’s neighborhoods and those who design for them. Tours, presentations, a design-build challenge, a neighborhood photography project, and Pecha Kucha rounded out the weekend. For more information, visit

Caption: Top, The Gamble House, Pasadena, California, by Greene & Greene. Photo © Alexander Vertikoff. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Printed with permission of The Gamble House.


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

Guggenheim Museum; New York, New York

Reviews of lectures, exhibitions, and events of note

Guggenheim Museum; New York, New York; May 15–August 23, 2009

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building, the Guggenheim is hosting its first exhibition of his work. Featuring 64 projects — both built and unrealized — this exhibition offers an intimate view into his design process through 200-plus original drawings as well as newly commissioned models and digital animations.

According to Phil Allsopp, president/CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Wright completed over 1,100 designs; the archive is vast enough to supply an exhibition of this size annually for 110 years. The curators chose what they believe are Wright’s best drawings, and the usual suspects are in attendance (Unity Temple, the Taliesens, and of course the Guggenheim itself), but his unbuilt projects, many on display for the first time, are perhaps some of the most fascinating.

Of his design for the San Marcos-in-the- Desert Resort, a victim of the 1929 crash, Wright said, “I have found that when a scheme develops beyond a normal pitch of excellence, the hand of fate strikes it down.” This held true for the captivating Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium, the hand of fate being an unhappy client who declined to build it. Its form was an upside-down predecessor to the Guggenheim — modeled in section for the exhibition, complete with twinkling stars. Also stunning are Wright’s drawings and a new topographic model of the Huntington Hartford Sports Club/Play Resort that daringly cantilevers from the museum’s wall.

While visitors of the Guggenheim often take the elevator and then meander down its spiraling ramp, this exhibition is arranged in a loosely chronological order from the rotunda floor upward. It is only fitting to culminate at the top, mirroring the path of Wright’s career and legacy.

Image caption: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; 1943–59. Ink and pencil on tracing paper. © 2009 The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.

Directed by David M. Edwards; Produced by EMotion Pictures, 2008; DVD, 82 minutes

Sprawling from Grace

A somber mood prevails throughout Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness, a primer on the urgent need to reform our culture’s automobile-dependent ways. A who’s who of national visionaries in energy, transit, and sustainable development tell the story, with appearances by some familiar Bostonians (David Dixon, Michael Dukakis, Tad Read).

Attempts to lighten the mood with nostalgic, black-and-white clips of the American love affair with the automobile and suburban life instead leave one wistful for simpler times. Though it tries, the film fails to deliver the emotional weight of a call to action.

More unfortunately, it neglects the ready availability of solutions. Bad news is emphasized over the good despite the positive data now emerging from cities (such as Portland, Oregon) in the forefront of the sprawl battle; images of today’s success stories — walkable shopping streets, mid-rise districts with transit stops — are fewer and less compelling than they could be. The Scared Straight model is indeed scary, but fear is not a reliable motivator.

Harvard Graduate School of Design; April 3–5, 2009

One subtext of this conference became clear almost immediately when keynote speaker Rem Koolhaas cursed architects for having no answers. The message was repeated over three days: Attempts to solve design problems by focusing only on architecture are inadequate and ineffective responses to real urban problems in this urban century. Design practice as it has been is over. Design practice must change in order to address pressing issues of climate change, social and economic equity, and health. The way forward was not at all clear, although the range of presenters — architects, historians, humanists, theologians, bureaucrats, academics, agronomists, artists, scientists, inventors, landscape architects, planners, politicians, a university president, a dean, and a mayor — symbolized the core idea that multiple disciplines working together are essential.

Its meaning elusive, the term “ecological urbanism” held an umbrella over everything “sustainable” while emphasizing the urban. The varieties of urbanism referenced over three days ranged from “ethical” and “landscape” to “reconsidered,” “dynamic,” and “user-generated.” The conference was extremely well planned — including an exhibition, forthcoming book, and website with podcasts — yet it conveyed a messy sense of confusion and incoherence, very much a work in progress. The need to craft a new language seemed to be another subtext. Perhaps the unadorned term “urbanism” is an adequate place to start and a useful focus as thinkers come to understand the complexity of the city’s dynamics while being constrained by realizations about natural-resource limits and damage to the environment.

It is good news that the powers that be, including now Harvard as well as the City of Boston, recognize both the need and the opportunity to make important changes to the status quo and to embrace new knowledge, with the understanding that cities and regions must be part of the solution. Alex Felson of Yale University asked the best question: “Is there a way architects can and will take in data and processes of ecology and make a difference?” As the conference made clear, the answer will require architects to adopt a broader stance as engaged creative thinkers and activists finding new ways to bring the knowledge to bear across disciplines, collaborating with peers in every field. It won’t be easy, as Andrea Branzi cautioned: “Interdisciplinarity is not a comfortable affair.”

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