05.19.10 Editor’s Note: We would like to welcome James S. Russell, FAIA, a long-time member of the AIANY Oculus Committee, on board as e-Oculus and OCULUS Editorial Advisor.
– Jessica Sheridan, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP

Stay tuned! The next issue of e-Oculus will be published on Thursday, 06.03.10 — an entire issue devoted to the AIA Guide to New York City launch and tributes to its late editor, Norval White, FAIA. Also, be sure to RSVP for the 06.02.10 AIA Guide to New York City Launch Party at the Center for Architecture (hosted by the AIANY OCULUS Committee), including remarks by AIANY leadership, Oxford University Press, Editor Fran Leadon, AIA, and a tribute to late authors Norval White, FAIA, and Elliot Willensky, FAIA.

Note: Be sure to follow Tweets from e-Oculus and the Center for Architecture.

Also, check out the latest Podcasts produced by AIANY.

Fit City 5: Photos from the Conference

05.18.10: Yesterday, 250 architects, health professionals, urban planners, developers, and fitness experts gathered at the Center for Architecture for Fit City 5, organized by AIANY and NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Check back for a full report on the conference!


Tony Schirripa, FAIA, President, AIA New York (left), and George Miller, FAIA, President, AIA National, before the conference.

Emily Nemens


Fatma Amer, PE, Deputy Comm., Dept. of Buildings; Amanda Burden, FAICP, Hon. AIA, Comm., Dept. of City Planning; David Burney, FAIA, Comm., Dept. of Design and Construction; Adrian Benepe, Comm., Dept. of Parks & Recreation; Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, Comm., Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene; Janette Sadik-Khan, Comm., Dept. of Transportation; Matthew Sapolin, Comm., Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

Emily Nemens


Thom Mayne, FAIA, Morphosis Architects; Vincent Chang, AIA, RIBA, Grimshaw Architects; Jonathan Rose, Jonathan Rose Companies: Green Development and Affordable Housing, Susan Szenasy, Editor-in-Chief, Metropolis Magazine.

Emily Nemens

Architects Build Careers with Unbuilt Work: 2010 Design Awards

Event: 2010 AIANY Design Awards Panel: Unbuilt Work
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.10.10
Speakers: Garrick Jones — Associate, Della Valle Bernheimer; Megumi Tamanaha — Associate, Architecture Research Office; Jeeyong An, AIA — Principal, Ginseng Chicken Architecture; Pablo Castro, AIA — Principal, OBRA Architects; Victor Agran, RA — Senior Associate, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects; Rona Easton, AIA, LEED AP — EASTON+COMBS; Hangman Zo, KIRA — Principal, H Associates; Craig Konyk, AIA — Principal, konyk; Audrey Choi — Associate Principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox
Moderator: Susanna Sirefman — President, Dovetail Design Strategists
Organizers: AIANY
Sponsors: Chair’s Circle: F+P Architects New York Inc.; Benefactor: STUDIOS Architecture; Patrons: Mancini Duffy; Peter Marino Architect; Studio Daniel Libeskind; Trespa; Lead Sponsors: A. E. Greyson + Company; Dagher Engineering; F.J. Sciame Construction Co. Inc.; Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson; FXFOWLE Architects; Gensler; Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti; Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; MechoShade Systems Inc.; New York University; Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Rudin Management Company Inc.; Structure Tone Inc.; Syska Hennessy Group; Toshiko Mori Architect; VJ Associates


Clockwise: Open Paradox by Ginseng Chicken Architecture; Chung-Nam Government Complex by H Associates and Haeahn Architecture; Lux Nova by EASTON+COMBS; R-House by Della Valle Bernheimer and Architectural Research Office.

Courtesy AIANY

“To win a competition is the wrong reason to do a competition,” said Craig Konyk, AIA, principal at konyk; rather, he said, competitions and unbuilt commissions should be seen as a chance to test new ideas. The Unbuilt category of the AIANY Design Awards specifically honored those ideas, and ultimately the jury bestowed 11 Merit Awards.

As one might expect, many of the winners incorporated sustainable features, but two sought to re-conceptualize sustainability by investigating new material properties. “Lux Nova,” EASTON+COMBS’ submission to P.S.1’s annual Young Architects Program, is a colorful canopied environment using lightweight polycarbonate fins; plastic doesn’t usually come to mind when people think of sustainability, stated Rona Easton, AIA, a principal at the firm, but the installation is fully recyclable. In a competition to redevelop a Dallas city block, konyk designed “Urban Aeration,” an architectural landscape inspired by “microporosity at a molecular level,” which maximizes surface area for air filtration and water absorption.

Other award winners had more social goals. The R-House, designed by Della Valle Bernheimer and Architectural Research Office, introduced affordable, energy-efficient, contemporary housing to an economically disadvantaged neighborhood in Syracuse, NY. Ginseng Chicken Architecture reorganized the typical research program in “Open Paradox,” a new facility for the South Korean technical university KAIST, by adjoining diverse disciplines to encourage interdepartmental collaboration. And the Chung-Nam Government Complex, designed by H Associates and Haeahn Architecture, splits a large government center into three separate buildings, interwoven with open plazas that privilege public access and use.

OBRA Architects took home two Unbuilt awards for the Korean Cultural Center in NYC and the Great Hall at Grace Farms in New Canaan, CT. The former solves the problem of a dark, narrow site in Midtown with a reflecting pool to bounce sunlight through an overhanging, faceted rear curtain wall. The latter answers the client’s brief for a building that would “almost disappear” with a dome-shaped structure, covered by a green roof that resembles a hill in the landscape.

Finally, AIANY recognized two in-progress urban-scale projects. Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects’ Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco will provide a massive multimodal transportation hub, with a five-block-long public park on the roof when it opens in 2017. In China, Tianjin Hang Lung Plaza unifies 1.6 million square feet of retail within a sleek “carapace;” here, Kohn Pedersen Fox located the main pedestrian corridor at the top level, so shoppers filter down through the complex, rather than up.

(Two additional Design Award winners were not presented: the Medeu Sports Center, designed by Audrey Matlock Architect; and “On the Water: Palisade Bay,” from the team of Guy Nordenson and Associates with Catherine Seavitt Studio and Architecture Research Office.)

In the panel discussion that followed, the presenters debated the value of their unbuilt projects. Though many acknowledged the great effort and expense that goes into a competition submission, all for uncertain reward, most agreed it’s an excellent opportunity for research and development, and that the lessons learned influence later designs. And, as Garrick Jones of Della Valle Bernheimer encouraged, if you don’t see any competitions or speculative work that fits your firm’s interests, “make up your own. What did you do for your thesis? What is the next project? What are people not thinking about?”

New Practices New York Gauges Seven Emerging Firms

Event: New Practices New York 2010: Jury’s Symposium
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.12.10
Jurors/Panelists: Toshiko Mori, FAIA — Toshiko Mori Architect, (Lead Juror); Joe MacDonald, Assoc. AIA — Urban A&O (Discussion Leader); William Menking — Editor-in-Chief, The Architect’s Newspaper; Guy Nordenson — Principal, Guy Nordenson and Associates; Galia Solomonoff, AIA — Founder, Solomonoff Architecture Studio
Organizer: AIANY New Practices Committee
Sponsors: Lead Sponsors: Dornbracht; MG & Company; Valiant Technology; Sponsors: Espasso; Hafele; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP; Media Sponsor: The Architect’s Newspaper


Clockwise: Lux Nova, MoMA P.S.1, NYC, by EASTON+COMBS; Academy of Performing Arts, Sarajevo, Bosnia, by Archipelagos; Hirshkron/Camacho Apartment, NYC, by Manifold; Wedding chapel, model, milled MDF, SO-IL; CHROMAesthesiae, site specific installation at Devotion Gallery, Brooklyn, by SOFTlab; Saipua, Soap and Flower Shop, Brooklyn, by Tacklebox; Phillip Lim Seoul Flagship, Seoul, by Leong Leong.

Clockwise: Photos by Adam Ward; Archipelagos; Dean Kaufman; SO-IL; Alan Tansey; Tacklebox; Iwan Baan; all courtesy AIANY

Every other year, the AIANY New Practices Committee holds a portfolio-based competition for emerging firms in NYC. This year, out of 65 submissions, jurors selected seven New Practices New York (NPNY) 2010 Winners: EASTON+COMBS (highest honor); Archipelagos; Leong Leong; Manifold; SOFTlab; SO-IL; and Tacklebox. The prestigious jury gathered to discuss the selection process, the importance of firms’ representation, and patterns among emerging practices.

Jurors faced the challenge of evaluating “fully evolved portfolios versus really interpreting the work,” according to William Menking, editor-in-chief of The Architect’s Newspaper. “Many emerging professionals haven’t mastered the skills or don’t take the time to present their work well,” he believes. Although graphics are typically the focus of a portfolio, jurors agreed that the text is very important, too.

Toshiko Mori, FAIA, the lead juror, felt that it is important for firms to show a range of practices. She thought EASTON+COMBS showed both “diversity and consistency,” while Archipelago’s portfolio told a “compelling narrative.” Joe MacDonald, Assoc. AIA, founder of Urban A&O and 2009 NPNY winner, was particularly impressed with SOFTlab: the digital and material practice “blurred.” They stood out for their tenacity; aside from creating “extremely successful architectural ‘events’,” they also design websites to stay afloat in the difficult economy. The most successful emerging firms are able to “implement big ideas in small increments,” according to Galia Solomonoff, AIA, founder of Solomonoff Architecture Studio. Guy Nordensen found it interesting to trace the evolution of new practices that emerged from established firms, such as SO-IL from SANAA.

A recurring theme among New Practices juries each year is the topic of built vs. unbuilt work. Menking said that he likes to see at least one project built, even if it’s just a little café. MacDonald was surprised to see so much built work among the submissions, and less speculative work or environmentally driven issues. However, he also saw “nothing daring,” proving that getting projects built won’t necessarily win the prize. Nordensen felt that a strong theoretical perspective was missing among the firms. Although Mori called the winners “a very sophisticated group,” she lamented the lack of innovative practice models and would like for firms be more articulate about credits for the role each person plays. Ultimately, NPNY is “not a beauty contest,” she said, but a gauge of “how you are evolving your practice.”

Menking pointed out that while NYC has a reputation of being a difficult city in which to start a firm, it is also ripe with opportunities for emerging practices. Besides AIANY’s NPNY competition, the Architectural League holds a similar competition for young architects; the Van Alen offers fellowships and holds competitions; the Museum of Modern Art frequently features groundbreaking work; and the Mayor’s Design and Construction Excellence program seeks smaller, creative practices, to name a few.

NYC Sets Groundwork for Improved Design for the Aging

Event: Design for the Aging in New York City
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.29.10
Speaker: Lilliam Barrios-Paoli — Commissioner, NYC Department for the Aging
Organizers: AIANY Design for Aging Committee

Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli of the NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA) spoke at the Center for Architecture on 04.29. The event was organized by the newly formed AIANY Chapter Design for Aging Committee. The committee aims to raise awareness about the needs of the elderly, specifically in an urban context, specifically in NYC. By making NYC’s physical environment reflect greater consideration for the elderly, the city will become a more age-friendly place for people of all ages to enjoy.

Barrios-Paoli emphasized that there is an immense need for age-friendly environments in the city. It’s projected that there will be more than 1.4 million people over age 65 living here by 2030. Currently, there are about 930,000 seniors in NYC, 30,000 of whom pay daily visits to the almost 300 DFTA Senior Centers now in operation. About 300,000 seniors live below the poverty level, so the daily meal served at the centers is often the most nutritious of their day.

DFTA’s environmental concerns focus mainly on public spaces, accessible and affordable transportation, and housing. Some of the details:

Public Spaces: Public spaces should be designed so they are not isolated, thus allowing seniors to view and perhaps participate in activities that involve other age groups. DFTA aims to assure that lighting is adequate, public restrooms are available, surfaces for walking are paved and not uneven, and that there are a sufficient number of benches. Conflicting priorities must be resolved, e.g. preferences by some to remove benches because of their possible use by the homeless.

Transportation: DFTA aims to require larger type on informational signs, so that seniors can easily read bus schedules, to be sure that street-light timing at crosswalks allows the elderly to cross without rushing, to modify left-turn controls for vehicles at intersections, and to increase the number of elevators and escalators for access to subway stations. Street crossings with medians that provide places to rest midway are highly desirable. The design of bicycle lanes can narrow intersections, but speeding bicycles frequently cause accidents, often with the elderly. Improved designs for taxicabs are needed for easy accessibility and to accommodate wheelchairs.

Housing: Housing that allows aging-in-place is especially important in NYC. Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) and other assisted-living arrangements tend to be very expensive here. Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) encourage services to be brought to seniors where they live, and focus on preventive health-care needs. Since these activities can prevent fires and other accidents they tend to be positively viewed by landlords. But stairs and other barriers often restrict life-activities of the elderly, so guidelines to encourage aging-in-place need to have a greater influence on the design of multiple dwellings.

DFTA is working with other city agencies toward changing existing regulations that conflict with the needs of seniors, and the department is beginning to involve seniors in the planning process for future improvements. The Design for Aging Committee looks forward to a continuing relationship with DFTA by exploring possibilities and becoming an active advocate for highly functioning, age-friendly physical environments throughout the city.

The Design For Aging Committee meets once a month. At our First meeting since Commissioner Barrios-Paoli’s talk, stimulated by her suggestions, we began to enthusiastically generate many good ideas for future exploration /implementation. If you’d like to join us to further develop and pursue these goals, contact Jerry Maltz.

“The Bilbao Effect” by Oren Safdie: Laugh. Wince. Rinse. Repeat.

Event: “The Bilbao Effect” by Oren Safdie
Location: Center for Architecture, through 06.05.10
Cast: John Bolton, Marc Carver, Anthony Giaimo, Ann Hu, Lorraine Serabian, Joris Stuyck, Jay Sullivan, Joel Van Liew, Tommy Biggiani
Organizers: Brendan Hughes (director); Center for Architecture; Jacqueline Bridgeman; Fritz Michel; Les Gutman; Canada Council for the Arts; Quebec Government Office — New York


(L-R): Ann Hu (Mitsumi Yoshida), Marc Carver (Bill Watertsand), and Joel Van Liew (Alexandre Nusinovitski) in Oren Safdie’s “The Bilbao Effect.”

Carol Rosegg

Playwright Oren Safdie has archibabble and legal-speak down pat — and takes both to task — in “The Bilbao Effect,” a one-act, biting satire that pits starchitecture against the good of the common man. The setting is the Center for Architecture — at the Center for Architecture. The premise is a trial of sorts: the defendant is world-famous architect Erhardt Shlaminger (played by Joris Stuyck with proficient pomposity). The plaintiff is chiropractor and third-generation Staten Islander Paul Balzano (Anthony Giamo), an Every Man and the only non-intellectual in the room. Shlaminger is accused of violating a canon of the AIA Code of Ethics for architects to “thoughtfully consider the social and environmental impact of their professional activities” in his design for the 1,200-acre Staten Island Waterside Urban Renewal Redevelopment project. Any similarity to urban mega-projects, living or dead, is purely intentional.

Ice falling off roofs and heat-repelling curtains figure prominently. As do an outrageous — in a good way — model of the project itself, and a lot of name-dropping (“What’s a Libeskind?”). Balzano claims that two Shlaminger-designed structures, the Museum of Contemporary-Contemporary Art (no, that’s not a typo) and an extremely angular, titanium-clad “toaster-on-steroids” apartment tower caused his wife to commit suicide. The thoroughly ego-centric architect, charged with being a “new breed of urban renewalist” who puts design above human need, calls the hearing a “ridiculous witch-hunt — the likes that haven’t been seen since Galileo.”

The proceedings are overseen by a more than slightly scattered chairman of an AIA Ethics Committee (Marc Carver). The two attorneys (Ann Hu and John Bolton) are architecturally knowledgeable in arguing both sides of the issue at hand: freedom of artistic expression vs. “society’s right to be protected from people who abuse those freedoms.” Witnesses include the architect’s pediatrician-mother (Lorraine Serabian), who has a tendency to over-medicate and lives in a house designed by her son, where nothing is where it’s supposed to be (having the bathroom in the kitchen — “I assure you, it’s all very sanitary” — apparently saved a boy’s life). A snobbish, jittery — and once-notable — critic (Joel Van Liew) has his own odd back-story for why he now denounces starchitecture, verbose and bathetic tirades included. And a Belgian furniture designer (Jay Sullivan), who worked with Shlaminger on the Staten Island project (he hit big at the Venice Biennale with a barbed wire wheelchair), shows up as a surprise witness.

Though the characters are more than a bit exaggerated (never mind the model), and much of the rhetoric is more than familiar, inducing audible groaning giggles from the audience, Safdie clearly has a way with words. The debate concludes with no clear winner, but should spark conversations among professionals and lay people alike. Would that the real discussions and debates that go on at the Center, though often thought-provoking, were as amusingly entertaining. Well… some have been known to be…

Tickets: $18; click here to order.

First Crit: ACE High School Students Present Schemes for NYC

Event: ACE Mentor Program of Greater New York 2009-2010 Final Presentations
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.03.10
Speakers: Introduction by Rick Bell, FAIA; Joseph Aliotta, AIA, LEED AP BD+C — Vice Chair/Architecture, 2009-2010 NY Board of Directors, ACE Mentor Program & Principal, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects; Presentations by ACE Mentoring Students
Moderator: Annika Smith — Executive Director, ACE Mentor Program of Greater New York
Organizer: ACE Mentor Program
Sponsor: AIANY Emerging New York Architects Committee (ENYA)


Site model of Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 2, made by ACE Mentor Team #21 (Helpern Architects, Skanska, Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, Glickman Engineering Associates).

Murrye Bernard

Imagine entering architecture or engineering school and already understanding the concept of partis and programs, and possessing practical knowledge of building systems and construction management. NYC high school students who participate in the ACE Mentor Program will have such an advantage. Two teams from the 2010 class presented their final projects to a distinguished jury, including David Burney, FAIA, commissioner of the NYC Department of Design and Construction. “It’s like American Idol without Simon Cowell,” remarked Team Leader Darris James, Assoc. AIA, a senior associate at Gensler.

The students of Team #3 (FXFOWLE Architects, Thornton Tomasetti, Tishman Construction, WSP Flack + Kurtz) designed a mixed-use tower for Manhattan’s in-flux Hudson Yards area. They established the building’s profile by studying zoning diagrams and calculating the FAR. Then they created their own program, including residential units and retail space, a food court, and a museum complete with a planetarium to draw visitors from the street level. While the jurors complimented the iconic nature of the tower’s twisting, spiraling form — articulated by staggered balconies with community gardens for each residential floor — they questioned the viability of the dramatic cantilevers.

The level of completeness of the project impressed jurors. Students delved into the details, selecting eco-friendly materials, specifying high-performance glazing with integrated shading devices, and designing rainwater harvesting and gray water reuse systems. They studied both concrete and steel structural systems and learned about loading diagrams and shear walls. Their plan drawings incorporated mechanical systems, which required a bit of teamwork. “It’s exciting how engineering and architecture come together, allowing students to look at projects holistically,” commented AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA,. In addition, students studied the often-overlooked topic of construction management, including cost estimation, project schedules, and even equipment staging.

Team #21 (Helpern Architects, Skanska, Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, Glickman Engineering Associates) followed many of the same exercises to develop a comprehensive site plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 2. The presentation focused on the design process: they experimented with structural principles such as X-bracing and the importance of establishing a strong base by building models with dry spaghetti and marshmallows. The students also studied Bjarke Ingels’s concept of layering programs and developed an ambitious one of their own, combining a veranda, partially submerged retail space, an underwater theater, a botanical garden, and a Japanese teahouse.

Students studied soil profiles from the site and confirmed that their underwater theater could rest directly on bedrock. Determining the structural feasibility of this space proved challenging, as did figuring out how to support its glass dome (they settled on a tree-like sculpture). Though jurors praised their success in layering programs, Burney pointed out that the underground retail area might feel dismal — and also doesn’t have a good track record in NYC. Jurors asked the students why they went to the trouble of sinking the theater, to which they responded that their goal was to avoid blocking the sweeping views of Manhattan. James urged them to take the tree symbolism further and make it a stronger design element.

Through the ACE Mentor Program, students gained valuable insight into the architecture, engineering, and construction professions. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons learned, according to one student, is that “everything is almost a variable until you complete the project.” Following the presentation and crit, ACE program leaders presented many students with cash scholarships toward their design school of choice.

Buildings and Landscape and Art, Oh My!

Event: Is it Architecture?: The Structure in Landscape
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.03.10
Speakers: Alice Aycock — Sculptor; Signe Nielsen, FASLA — Principal, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects; Dennis Oppenheim — Sculptor & Installation Artist; Christopher Sharples, AIA — Principal, SHoP Architects
Moderator: Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA — Board Chair, Architecture Omi & Principal, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership
Organizer: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee, with Architecture OMI
Sponsors: IBEX Construction; Renfro Design Group


“Interfere,” by Oliver Kruse, his students, and staff at the Peter Behrens School of Architecture, Düsseldorf. A larger version will be the first built project at Architecture Omi, debuting next month.

Courtesy Oliver Kruse

When the boundaries between sculpture, architecture, and landscape begin to dissolve, the results can be intriguing (as anyone who walked through Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates” in Central Park might agree). Soon Ghent, a town in upstate NY, will be home to some daring hybrids of its own, thanks to a program called Architecture Omi , whose goal is to facilitate projects exploring the intersection of architecture, sculpture, and landscape architecture on a bucolic 75-acre site. As the program prepares for the debut of its first built project next month, a panel of prominent figures in all three disciplines shared their ideas about the ways their fields converge and diverge. They also brainstormed about how Architecture Omi could best fulfill its mission as a “laboratory-style setting for the production of innovative forms,” in the words of Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA, chair of the board of Architecture Omi.

In the past 20 years, “architecture has become more sculptural,” and simultaneously, “sculpture has become more architectural,” Skolnick remarked. That hasn’t always been the case, said sculptor and installation artist Dennis Oppenheim. Once, “sculptors were suspicious of architects,” he explained, because fine artists tended to reject the kinds of utilitarian and social missions that architecture needed to embrace. But gradually attitudes shifted, and some sculptors began to believe that if they could “touch delicately into functionality and delicately into the social realm they would actually be elevating the sculpture into a much more powerful idiom,” he said. One example is Oppenheim’s “Light Chamber,” a large-scale sculpture being built in front of the Denver federal courthouse. Made of steel and polycarbonate rods, its petal-like walls curve up through the air, tempting passersby to enter and explore the space, which is conceptualized as a poetic reinterpretation of a judge’s chamber.

When talk turned toward Architecture Omi’s plans for future projects, some panelists urged a cautious, reverential approach to the site. “Do something meaningful with that site and respect it and make it a special place,” said Signe Nielsen, FASLA, principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. “Don’t just place things on it.”

Meanwhile, Oppenheim wondered what it would mean to take architecture out of its usual realm. “Architecture is supposed to be in the real world,” but at Architecture Omi, it will be in an environment like a sculpture park, he said. “Can you really do that without making the work look artificial?” But for Christopher Sharples, AIA, of SHoP, the program sounded promising because of its potential for unconventional collaborations. “We all have sort of compartmentalized ourselves,” he said, ” so what’s really exciting here is the opportunity to work with different people from very different backgrounds.”

Skolnick pointed out that the program also offers a way for architects to flex their imaginations and try out adventurous ideas. “You don’t get to play out original ideas and abstract concepts for clients,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, much like in school, we had the chance to really explore ideas — and not just on paper and not just in small art form — but actually have them on the landscape?”

Global Dialogues Travels to Haiti


A team of architects, engineers, and volunteers traveled to Haiti with the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee. While there, the group constructed two structures with the help of local residents.

Noushin Ehsan

Soon after the Haitian earthquake, the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee, which I co-chair, began organizing a program to help. I was inspired by a team called Love for Haiti, an organization that sends groups of physicians and nurses to Haiti each month and takes a practical approach to pitching in with relief efforts. When founder Dr. Muni Tahzib invited me to travel to Haiti and lead a team of eight architects, engineers, and other volunteers, I accepted. Within a few days, we planned our trip and arrived in Port-au-Prince on 03.03.10 at a moderately undamaged school on the outskirts of the city — our base for the next five days.

Upon arrival, we surveyed the conditions of various public and private buildings. Some of our A&E team members specialize in disaster assessment, and with their help we identified the unsafe buildings. We then began collecting data for future planning and rebuilding of Haiti. These investigations were some of the most heart-wrenching and emotional times for the team.

Although architects and engineers often have no experience with hands-on construction, and our initial intention was only to assess and survey existing conditions, we were inspired by the urgent need for housing to experiment and assembled two temporary structures. One structure was made with rigid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) tubes, one of the few locally available materials — an idea conceived by Maryanne Fike, the co-founder of Love for Haiti. The other structure was constructed with 1/2-inch-diameter, 30-foot lengths of re-bar, an idea conjured up by Mark Freehill, a Dominican Republic assistant with Love for Haiti. Ironically, both concepts were derived from our non-architect team members, underscoring the idea that we architects must “think outside the box.” These versatile assemblages were easy to build and move; they did not require skilled labor; and they allowed for variations in their coverings. While we began construction, the local populace observed our enthusiasm, offered their assistance, and even helped erect the two structures.

We met Dr. Florentino Latortue, a Haitian with a Ph.D. in structural engineering from the U.S., who took himself away from his prior commitments to tirelessly drive us around and explain why some of the outside help was not working in Haiti. We saw some imported prefabricated houses but were inappropriate for Haitian habitation. For example, even though there is no water or sewage system, these houses have showers, full kitchens, and toilets. Also, the temperature in Haiti often reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but ventilation is absent in these houses. Latortue pointed out that every day people are dying from lack of shelter, but well-intentioned foreigners are taking up valuable time to develop extensive building codes with the authorities.

Our trip to Haiti was an eye opening experience and prompted us to recalibrate our thoughts as to how one can effectively assist them. I would strongly recommend such a trip for all architects, engineers, and any interested party who wants to be involved in rebuilding Haiti.

We all know that the devastation in Haiti is vast, and clearly it will take considerable time and effort to help rebuild. Therefore, in addition to Love for Haiti, I am consulting with different people and organizations to work toward additional tangible solutions that can lead to improved habitation. With the Global Dialogues Committee, we will generate new design ideas for Haiti and try to make sure it gets built. Then, we will return for further help and public feedback. We intend to use local technology, materials, and manpower; incorporate Hatian culture and habitation; seek acceptance by the local residents; and teach them additional skills to improve their lives.

In upcoming months, the committee is planning to request proposals for design solutions that can be built by Haitians with available, inexpensive materials. We will give preferences to ideas that can be utilized as interim solutions and, with additional work, can be made into permanent structures. We then hope to fund the winning designs so the designers and a few volunteers can travel to Haiti to build them in a way that Haitians can expand upon and adapt. Our overall goal is not only to create near term, usable housing, but to create a new mindset among Haitians.

I urge interested readers to contact me at info@2ndopiniondesign.com to help with this cause. Also, click AdditionalNotesOnHaiti to read my additional notes and lessons learned; the description of the temporary structures assembled in Haiti; and a few suggestions for Criteria for the Suitable Design for Haitian Habitation.

Traditions Resilient Enough for Hard Times

Event: Facing the Crisis: Continuity and Change in Global Architecture
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.05.10
Keynote Speaker: Kenneth Frampton — Ware Professor of Architecture, Columbia GSAPP
Speakers: Richard A. Cook, AIA — Partner, Cook + Fox Architects; Jordan Gruzen, FAIA — Partner, Gruzen Samton; Thomas Scheel — Vilhelm Lauritzen A/S; Julien de Smedt — JDS Architects
Moderator: Peter V. Noonan, AIA — Principal, McInturff Architects
Welcomes: Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIANY; Torben A. Gettermann, Ambassador, Consul General of Denmark; Marianne Ibler — Architect & Publisher, Archipress
Organizers: Center for Architecture; Consulate General of Denmark; Archipress M

Formal clarity, high performance, social purpose, and ecological awareness make Danish Modernism a beacon to the global design community during today’s combined environmental and economic troubles. It’s a different world now, nearly nine decades after Vilhelm Lauritsen founded his firm VLA: tightly interconnected on an intercontinental scale, acutely aware of historical burdens, open to certain forms of optimism. If the idea that we can design our way out of today’s crises is asking too much, mitigation strategies can still draw on traditions with a record of converting crisis to opportunity.

The four firms represented at this joint Danish-American event, one older and one newer firm from each nation, explored the dialectic between tradition and crisis. The event doubled as a prelaunch book reception for Global Danish Architecture 4: Crisis & Tradition by Kenneth Frampton, John Cava, and Marianne Ibler (Aarhus: Archipress, 2009; U.S. release anticipated later this year).

It’s a truism that what was once avant-garde is now venerable tradition, but some traditions are more adaptable than others. Keynote speaker Kenneth Frampton navigated the complex “Zen-like, gnomic” sense of tradition in an overview of 20th-century and contemporary Danish work, quoting Catalan philosopher Eugenio D’Ors (“all that is not tradition is plagiarism”), and exploring architectural implications of the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of tension between “rupture, the avant-garde gesture” and the normative. Emphasizing Danish academic standards, linkages to landscape, and craft traditions, particularly brickwork (e.g., the expressionist Grundtvig Church, begun in 1921 by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint and finished by his son Kaare Klint in 1940), Frampton located Danish design’s strength in “a delicate precision which you could think of as normative,” linked to handicrafts that industrial methods never quite extinguished.

Variations on these norms formed a common thread among the featured discussions. Thomas Schell presented the past and present work of Lauritsen’s VLA, from a succession of airport terminals and embassies through the Folkets Hus or People’s Palace (now a music venue, still bearing its exuberant three-story frieze), and the organically striated Tuborg Waves office complex; the longevity of VLA’s designs reflects the conviction that “architecture is an act of love, not a stage set.” OMA alumnus and former Ingels partner Julien de Smedt described himself as “born with a brick in his stomach” like all his countrymen: he’s Belgian, and thus an improbable representative of Denmark, but his young firm is punching well above its weight, winning more commissions after the crash than before it, from innovative housing and recreational facilities to an iconic ski jump at Holmenkollen, Norway.

Common ideals linked Copenhagen and New York well before Jan Gehl’s consultancy with the city’s Department of Transportation. Richard Cook, AIA’s discussion of sustainable technologies at Cook + Fox’s One Bryant Park, the porous and flexible Live Work Home in Syracuse, and elsewhere drew on another tradition: that of America’s oldest representative democracy, the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse”) nations, emphasizing seven-generation planning that respects natural cycles and resources. One Bryant Park implements this philosophy through passive-solar heating, water and heat recapture, nocturnal ice generation, and other high-performance strategies adding up to an estimated 77% thermal efficiency (reversing American buildings’ average of 73% heat wasted).

Wrapping up the proceedings, Jordan Gruzen, FAIA, profiled six decades’ worth of Gruzen Samton buildings demonstrating the firm’s commitment to “sustainability before it became the right thing to do on its own.” Its design for below-grade Central Park stables during the Lindsay administration, had it been built, would have been the first green municipal structure, decades before the term became current. Realized projects such as Horizon House in Fort Lee, NJ (with all apartments facing the Hudson and the morning sun, instead of double-loaded corridors), the Northtown and Southtown UDC residences on Roosevelt Island, reuse projects such as El Museo del Barrio, and more recent collaborations with Morphosis at Cooper Union and with Foster + Partners on a new Yale School of Management building all evince a knack for common-sense detailing and whatever bold strokes a site requires. Though American eyes often turn to Denmark and other European nations for advances in sustainable design, Gruzen, Cook, and their colleagues are living evidence of a lineage worth emulating right here at home.