NYC Government Inspires Civic Virtue

Event: NYC: Design Challenge!
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.30.07
Speaker: Alexandros Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, NYC Department of City Planning
Sponsor: NYC Department of City Planning

Alexandros Washburn, AIA, with Jeffrey Shumaker

Alexandros Washburn, AIA, Chief Urban Designer with Jeffrey Shumaker, Associate Urban Designer at the NYC Department of City Planning.

Kristen Richards

“There are a million people coming to the city. How should we grow?” was the question New York City’s Chief Urban Planner, Alex Washburn, AIA, put to the small but attentive gathering in the Center for Architecture’s library. There was nothing coy or ambiguous about his vision of the city’s future — honed by his tenure as an advisor to Senator Patrick Moynihan (and the only architect on the staff of a U.S. Senator). “The quality of public design is a political fact,” Washburn said. “Buildings don’t lie. Moynihan believed buildings make a city better. I still use his lessons every day.”

“It’s always been Jane versus Bob,” he continued, “blocks versus super-blocks,” referring to the famous (or infamous) battles between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Though he holds some admiration for Moses’s ability to “ju-jitsu” government funding for transportation and public parks and creating public/private partnerships on “unprecedented scales,” Washburn said, “My heart is with Jacobs.”

He was asked why he left a very successful private practice (W Architecture and Landscape Architecture) to go back into government. He cited three reasons: Mayor Bloomberg’s “courageous” plaNYC 2030, a “genius financier” in Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and “someone who cares totally about design,” City Planning Director Amanda Burden, Hon. AIANY. The challenge he sees now: to do skillful planning on a Moses-like scale that entails politics, civic and market demands, and design — an ideal melding of Moses/Jacobs priorities — that will increase the fine-grain texture of the city rather than erase it. The city’s commitment to green public open spaces and “pedestrians come first” approach is, in Washburn’s opinion, causing an evolution — “a new definition and a new paradigm for civic virtue. It’s time to get away from the birds-eye view and humanize how we plan the city,” he said resolutely.

Architects Encouraged to Aid Poor at Awards Lunch

Event: 2007 AIA New York Chapter Design Awards Luncheon
Location: Gotham Hall, 04.11.07
Organizers: AIANY

Design Awards Luncheon

(Left) (l-r): R.K. Stewart, FAIA, Ronnette Riley, FAIA, and Elisabeth Martin, AIA at the Design Awards Luncheon.
(Right) Ken Drucker, AIA, Design Awards Lunchen Chair with James McCullar, FAIA, AIANY First Vice President/President Elect.

Kristen Richards

As the 2007 AIANY Design Awards Luncheon Chair, Ken Drucker, AIA, welcomed more than 700 attendees to the second annual event held this year in the jewel-like setting of Gotham Hall. AIANY Chapter President Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, IIDA, then introduced the celebrated graphic designer Milton Glaser, the keynote speaker who was both witty and profound.

Years ago, Glaser made a list of the hierarchy in the field of visual arts: “First painter, then architect, although I think this relationship may be reversed at this moment, with the architects at the very top.” Then, in descending order, city planner, industrial designer, graphic designer, book designer, editorial designer, art director, advertising designer, craftsman, and commercial artist. “It is unusual for you all to have invited me to speak at this occasion since; in general, speakers from the top of the list are conventionally selected to speak to those below.” The common thread he found is that “all of us engaged in the ‘applied arts’ play the game of reconciling utility and beauty.”

Glaser then explored, in words and with beautiful illustrations, how serious practitioners attempt to balance left brain/right brain, art/work, material/spiritual. “I’m often surprised how passively architects and designers react to the political situations that affect their lives,” he lamented. He speculated that it could be due in part to “a latent response to McCarthyism, a dark moment in our political history,” and that “our political timidity might be that our affluent clients are either uninterested or hostile to our social opinions.” He offered one small way to change the world that “is both transformative and risk-free”: Kiva, a microfinance organization that that matches micro-loans (as small as $25) with impoverished people working their way out of poverty.”We all can help create a benign revolution that will shape our collective future,” he concluded.

The Rise of Starchitecture: Who to Blame (or Credit)

Event: 2007 Temko Critics Panel: A Critical Situation: What to Make of Starchitecture, And Who To Blame For It
Location: Baruch College, 03.28.07
Speakers: Karrie Jacobs and Philip Nobel — Contributing Editors, Metropolis; Jeremy Melvin — Architectural Review, consultant to Royal Academy of Arts Architecture Program, London; Rowan Moore — Director, The Architecture Foundation, and critic for Evening Standard, London; Moderator: Joseph Grima — Director, Storefront For Art and Architecture
Sponsors: Forum for Urban Design and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy; hosted by the Newman Institute for Real Estate Studies, Baruch College

photo by Kristen Richards

Temko Critics Panel (l-r): Jeremy Melvin, Philip Nobel, Rowan Moore, Joseph Grima, and Karrie Jacobs.

Kristen Richards

“I’ll jump into the deep end: starchitecture isn’t such a bad thing,” moderator Joseph Grima posited to the panel of design journalists and critics. “It’s good for your profession — it gives you something to write about.” Using Frank Gehry, FAIA, as an example of a global brand, he asked, “Are journalists to be blamed or credited?”

Jeremy Melvin, author of Isms: Understanding Architectural Styles (Universe 2006), commented that the conversation has been the same for the last 100 years, and will be the same for the next 100. The problem, as he sees it, is that in the last 15 to 20 years, there’s been more money to spend on architecture, causing “brand inflation.” He cited the Gazprom Tower competition as a “significant” example: “Invite all the same architects, and the winner is RMJM, a firm not that well known outside of the U.K. The design was not very good, but not worse than the others.” But it was a competition where “the quality of design dissolved.”

Philip Nobel asked if there is a connection between celebrity and quality. Melvin responded, wryly, that “celebrity can be achieved without doing anything,” yet there’s also the “irony” of those who reach “hyper-celebrity” because they have huge organizations behind them (he finds Norman Foster looking to sell his firm for £500 million “absurd”). Nobel pointed out that Zaha Hadid came to celebrity through her art and media buzz — which “is problematic — does that mean it’s good or just photogenic?”

Grima wondered if there’s complicity between architects and the press. Rowan Moore sees a “major shift in the scale of the phenomenon of starchitecture” where “clients and architects are controlling access to those they know will be positive; the balance of power has changed.” He said it boils down to “persuasion and charm, similar to the games fashion houses play.” Karrie Jacobs agreed, saying developers are buying into starchitecture in a big way, with “Broadway-style lists of credits in real estate ads. As architecture is recognized by popular culture, it becomes less the domain of a small group of experts and opinion makers.” She suggested someone should draw up a chart of how much a starchitect’s name adds to the square-foot value of a project.

To Grima’s question, “Has any building been killed by the press?” With a devilish grin, Melvin answered, “I’ve done quite a bit of slaughtering. Critics should be in the business of criticizing. Otherwise, what’s the point?” He later said that if the art world has experts who authenticate artworks, “why not have critics to authenticate good design?”

Grima then asked the panel if starchitecture has replaced what used to be “movements” or “isms.” Moore said, “I’d rather have starchitecture than isms or ideologies as style. Maybe it is progress. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic.” Nobel countered that in architectural education, “what might be good about isms is you’d have something to teach — not graphic chicanery. There are victims here — us — when these juniors start building.”

Audience Q&A: Is starchitecture a good thing? Moore: “I don’t think it’s fantastic; it’s open to abuse, but it doesn’t kill people.” Melvin: “You’re being too kind. It can hurt people.” Jacobs: “Ostentatious, over-the-top buildings used to show off nationalism. It beats the hell out of an arms race.”

How do you teach a client to think differently about architecture, to make better choices? Moore: “Call out bad buildings and bad shortlists.”

Would a global economic downturn affect starchitects? Nobel: “They’re trying to build practices that are recession-proof. You won’t kill starchitecture.”

Al Gore to Media: You’re Not Welcome; Media (somewhat) Amused

E-mail exchange between this writer and AIA National 03.23.07:

To: AIA National
Subject: Gore/AIA San Antonio

Hi AIA… I couldn’t find Gore keynote on schedule (or too bleary-eyed after pages of registration forms)…would you let me know when it is?

Fr: AIA National
RE: Gore/AIA San Antonio

He is speaking on May 5th at 3:30. But here’s the part that you’re not going to like. The agreement and contract…states that no members of the media will be admitted into the hall for Mr. Gore’s speech. I am not sure how His [sic] people or the management here at the AIA came to that agreement or more importantly WHY, but that’s what I have been told.

Apparently, the media is not allowed to attend any of Gore’s lectures. But that seemed beside the point, so I shared the above exchange with a number of design journalists across the U.S. Some of their responses are rather amusing (attribution has been omitted to protect both the innocent and not-so-innocent):

“Remember this the next time the AIA courts you for coverage!”

“Maybe he’s afraid of being Gored by the media???”

“Odd. What do you think he was going to talk about — state secrets revealed to the design profession? I personally think they should say no way, it’s open. His closing it does not reflect well on him, raises all sorts of issues.”

“Your e-mail has created a bit of a fuss around here. Either that or we’re all just really bored and want to go home! There’s also a huge, self-serving assumption here on the part of Gore’s people that the press would actually WANT to report anything he had to say. Kind of unintentionally hilarious, really.”

“I can’t believe that!! There’s a real lost opportunity on both sides.”

“A little birdy has told me that it’s Gore’s standard operating procedure these days. Don’t know if it’s because the content of his speeches are part and parcel of “An Inconvenient Truth” or not. Seems like a great way to annoy reporters, though, eh? You’d think that an old hand like Gore wouldn’t be afraid of the media at this point, wouldn’t you? I mean, he’s been through the most contentious election debacle in history, 8 years in the White House, etc. Strangeness.”

“He must be getting sensitive about his weight!”

“FYI this is standard @#$%-up practice by some at conventions. The directive to keep out the press would definitely come from Gore. Just goes to show you — he’s still a politician.”

“Why can’t they just show the movie?”

“I have no idea what’s up with Al, except he needs to go on a diet!”

“Keystroke slip — “His” with a cap letter might explain it all. The man IS surely running for president; he’s just waiting for Hillary and Obama to bore everyone to death. Having pesky press would destroy the neutral statesman/guru aura they’re working hard to inculcate.”

“Very strange. How enforceable is this?”

“This IS pretty strange. I guess the question is — are Gore’s comments off the record and cannot be reported? What in God’s name is he going to say that we haven’t heard already?????”

“Very strange indeed. A public and well-reported meeting between Gore and AIA members would have been terrific. I wonder whether the handlers around Gore are way too aggressive for his own good. I’m not close enough to the process to know whose interests are served by non-public events like these, but it looks too close to paranoia from here.”

“Interesting to compare this news with the big reach-out the AIA is doing to news media by conducting a Roper Poll on what we/media think of them.”

Architect-Interior Designer Collaboration: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Event: Process 2 Collaboration 4: Inside/Outside — Seamless Collaboration
Location: New York Design Center, 03.14.07
Speakers: Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP — Principal, Perkins+Will; Tom Krizmanic, AIA — Principal, STUDIOS Architecture; Kay Sargent, IIDA — Principal, IA; Jennifer Busch — Editor-in-Chief, Contract Magazine (moderator)
Organizer: New York Design Center

P2C panel (l-r): Tom Krizmanic, AIA, Principal; Kay Sargent, IIDA; Jennifer Busch; and Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP.

P2C panel (l-r): Tom Krizmanic, AIA, Principal; Kay Sargent, IIDA; Jennifer Busch; and Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP.

Kristen Richards

This Process 2 Collaboration (P2C) was the last in a series of four programs exploring the collaborative process between architecture and interior design. Instead of presenting case studies as previous programs did, the panel focused on the issues involved in collaboration — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with no holds barred.

For Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP, the barriers — and problems — “come up when the building architect doesn’t express to the client that the interiors should be part of the discussion from the beginning.” Kay Sargent, IIDA, agreed, saying, “Interior design is too often thought of after the fact.” And that is when, she said, instead of collaboration, it becomes competition — primarily for budget, and “it ends up as money not well spent. There needs to be a more holistic solution.”

Moderator Jennifer Busch asked, “Who does take the lead? Have designers abdicated leadership?” Sargent said it starts with contracts, and pointed out that 10 years ago, interior designers were often the project managers, but that project management firms have come to the fore who “beat you up in front of the client, and you’re dead before you start. Are they project managers or project meddlers?” Blumenfeld would like to see designers as co-equals to architects, or even lead in orchestrating base building and interiors, because “buildings need to be thought from the inside out… It’s the client’s choice… we’re bad sales people if we can’t get them to understand. If we don’t bring up larger issues, such as space and purpose — not just programming — then we’re just a commodity.”

“Are the seeds of collaboration planted or not planted in design schools?” Busch asked. “Architectural training has students coming out thinking they’re ‘Masters of the Universe’,” said Tom Krizmanic, AIA. “They need to understand there are things they can’t do.” Sargent didn’t mince words: “It’s absurd that architecture and interior design students don’t spend a year actually building things to understand how things go together. We don’t encourage collaboration.” She said she is “appalled” that interior design programs “have a touch of architecture,” yet architects are “qualified to do interior design.”

This raised the issue of why it’s taking so long to “professionalize” interior design and allow designers to sign off on plans. Blumenfeld bemoaned the fact that students come out of architecture schools “without a real understanding of interior design,” but she believes that until interior design education changes to include knowledge of infrastructure and such, designers should not be allowed to sign drawings. Sargent had a very different take: “Lightning may strike me dead, but my advice to students is get four years of interior design, then a Masters in Architecture.”

Considering that the program topic touched on this year’s AIANY Chapter theme “Architecture Inside/Out” (and is the focus of the upcoming spring issue of Oculus), this writer asked the eternal question: What is the difference between interior architecture and interior design? Sargent felt the difference was more semantic, saying, “There’s still a negative connotation to the term ‘interior designer’.” Blumenfeld proffered that urban and interior design have more in common than architecture and interior design: “They both deal with large constituencies, user groups, providers, movement, and use of space.”