Oculus Book Review: Alexander Garvin’s “The Planning Game”

The Planning Game: Lessons from Great Cities
Alexander Garvin
W.W. Norton & Company (2013)

I first met Alex Garvin, Hon. AIANY, during the post-September 11th planning charrettes. He was clearly a person – a force – who understood the planning and visioning process and knew how to play the game, moving it along within a highly-charged environment. While this is not the focus of Garvin’s masterly work, it is indicative of the author’s depth of lived experience into how public planning works. Continue reading “Oculus Book Review: Alexander Garvin’s “The Planning Game””

Oculus Book Review: Marvin Mass’ “The Invisible Architect”

The Invisible Architect
Marvin Mass, PE with Janet Adams Strong, Ph.D
Piloti Press for Cosentini Associates, a TetraTech Company, 2012

In 1989, when Marvin Mass, PE, received the Franklin Institute’s Frank P. Brown Medal that honors “innovation and leadership in meritorious improvement in the building and allied industries,” Mass stated: “A building has more than a skin and bones; it also has a heart, veins, and nerves. They must all function together.”

This concept is at the heart of The Invisible Architect, a book that gives an intimate look at the dance between architecture and engineering in some of our country’s most notable buildings. Continue reading “Oculus Book Review: Marvin Mass’ “The Invisible Architect””

Oculus Book Review: Grand Central Terminal Centennial

Popular culture has grown increasingly more defined by names with celebrity status and punctuated in the media and the arts by gratuitous repetition. There is, however, one international icon that stands in defiance of that notion. At 100 years of age (yes, it has had “work done”), Grand Central Terminal is a name so recognizable that even though its surname was changed three times (Depot to Station to Terminal), the first name – Grand – has always remained intact. Not only is this luminary a building, but, similar to many New Yorkers, it has battled survival in tough economic times and developed the facility of reinvention. Continue reading “Oculus Book Review: Grand Central Terminal Centennial”

Oculus Book Review: “FIT: An Architect’s Manifesto”

FIT: An Architect’s Manifesto
Robert Geddes, FAIA
Princeton University Press, 2013

As 2012 drew to a close, conversations at the Center for Architecture were ever more focused two topics. One was the impact of design within the context of public space. The other was how rising sea levels and climate change would impact how we design and protect our vulnerable coastal communities. With this in mind, I cannot imagine a more perfect way to begin the 2013 Oculus Book Talk series than with FIT: An Architect’s Manifesto by the esteemed urbanist, architect, and professor Robert Geddes, FAIA. Continue reading “Oculus Book Review: “FIT: An Architect’s Manifesto””

Oculus Book Review: “Ezra Stoller, Photographer”

Ezra Stoller, Photographer
By Nina Rappaport, Erica Stoller, Andy Grundberg, Akiko Busch, and John Morris Dixon, FAIA; Yale University Press, 2012

“My father (1915-2004) was a storyteller,” extols Erica Stoller in the preface of Ezra Stoller, Photographer. “To explain the flow of space through a building, he spent a long time getting to know the project, following the sun from dawn to dusk even before setting up a camera.” With great aplomb this statement provides the reader access into the heart of Ezra Stoller, the artist and craftsman who produced more than 50,000 photographic images during his lifetime. Continue reading “Oculus Book Review: “Ezra Stoller, Photographer””

Oculus Book Review: Jeff Speck’s “Walkable City”

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time
By Jeff Speck

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2012

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time is not a treatise on why not to drive or a bash of the suburbs. Rather it focuses on the positive – why and how a more pedestrian-friendly American city is critical to the soul of its livability. Written in a delightful story-telling style; Jeff Speck intermingles theories of design and planning with substantiated documentation, references to pop culture, and our views of city living. Watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show when he was growing up provided him with a different view of urbanity. “Millennials,” Speck says, “have an even broader vision of what city life means thanks in part to Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City – a ’walkable‘ city with neighborhood coffee shops and active street life.” (Listen to Speck’s Oculus Quick Take interview with Miguel Baltierra on book deals, new urbanism, and more on Mary Tyler Moore’s vision of the city.)

As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, Speck oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, where every two months he would gather eight mayors and eight designers over a two-day period to study and attempt to resolve their cities’ most pressing planning issues; among the many things discussed was the theory of walkability. In the course of this and other projects, Speck developed the General Theory of Walkability, which, he says, “explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these is essential and none alone is sufficient.” These four conditions are further organized in Walkable City as Ten Steps of Walkability, “critical elements to economics, public welfare, and environmental sustainability” in our cities.

Speck describes walkability as part of what shapes the public realm; where pedestrian life can embrace the city as a outdoor living room. For some cities an investment in redeveloping the downtown with an ease of pedestrian movement has been the cornerstone of their revival, or as Speck defines it, an act of “urban triage.” Denver’s Lower Downtown, or LoDo, is but one example cited in the book. Investing in these few blocks, writes Speck, sparked a decade-long renaissance with a population that has grown 28% since 1990. It can, as in his discussion of Baton Rouge, become a political hot potato and a tough position to defend as a city planner. “Why are you working on downtown, when it’s in such better shape than where we live? Why aren’t you doing a plan for our community instead?” If one accepts the downtown as the heart of the urban organism, one that is both walkable, liveable, and organized around transit (not merely automobiles), then its development can fuel economic development that can ultimately be shared jointly by its citizenry.

In Step 4 of “The Ten Steps of Walkability: Let Transit Work,” he reminds us that “compact, diverse, walkable neighborhoods were the basic building blocks of cities from the first non-nomadic settlements over 10,000 years ago until the height of the auto age,” and that today, “public transportation cannot thrive in the absence of a neighborhood structure, since it is the nodal and pedestrian-friendly nature of neighborhoods that allows riders to walk to the transit stop.” Designing to enhance the human experience is at the core of Speck’s book. At a time when economics and sustainability are critical to maintain the health and vibrancy of our cities, these ideas could not be timelier.

An earlier version of this article included an erroneous quote. The quote should read, “Each of these is essential and none alone is sufficient,” not, “…and one alone is sufficient.”

Oculus Book Review: African Metropolitan Architecture

David Adjaye at the Center for Architecture.

Daniel Fox

African Metropolitan Architecture
By David Adjaye; edited by Peter Allison

First published in the United States in 2011 by Rizzoli International Publications; originally published in the United Kingdom in 2011 by Thames & Hudson Ltd.

African Metropolitan Architecture is a commanding series of architectural journeys through 53 cities in Africa that integrates personal narrative with the prevailing power of architecture. Documented with urban history, fact files, maps, satellite imagery, and groundbreaking photographs by architect David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, RIBA, each image, much as John Berger wrote in his classic 1972 Ways of Seeing, portrays that “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe […] We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”

In each of the seven lush volumes, the first of which is filled with essays by leading scholars and critics, you experience how varied the concept of metropolitan is as you make the passage through Maghreb (northwest Africa), the Sahel (the semi-arid fringe south of the Sahara), Savannah and Grassland, and Mountain and Highveld Desert and Forest.

“The concept of the ‘metropolitan’ has had a different history and trajectory from other continents and carries a distinct meaning,” writes Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, RIBA. Although the “histories of the cities may have much in common, the character of each city is unique to its location.” (Listen to Adjaye’s “Oculus Quick Take” podcast interview with Miguel Angel Baltierra, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP.)

In reflecting on this decade-long project at the Center for Architecture on 10.15.12, Adjaye spoke about the particular challenges facing those African cities that were transforming from local to national significance.

Conversations about how to reconcile the traditional with new approaches to architecture often became explosive. When asked how he was able to tackle so many cities with this level of intensity, depth, and understanding, his response was indicative of his voice as a writer and his passion as an architect: “My father was a diplomat and we moved every two-and-a-half years. I absorbed cities. It’s how I negotiated change and learned about how you make one’s personal perception visible to other people.” African Metropolitan Architecture accomplishes that and so much more – it removes the veils of mystery and misconception that have existed for far too long about this great continent and its approach to the built environment.

Oculus Book Review: “Beyond Zuccotti Park”

Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space
Edited by Ron Shiffman, FAICP, Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, ACSA, Rick Bell, FAIA, and Lynne Elizabeth
With Anastassia Fisyak and Anusha Venkataraman
Foreword by Michael Kimmelman
New Village Press, 2012

Contributors: Roland V. Anglin, Caron Atlas, Thomas Balsley, Terri Baltimore, Shirin Barghi, Rick Bell, Marshall Berman, Julian Brash, Wendy E. Brawer, Paul Broches, Carlton Brown, Lance Jay Brown, David Burney, Brennan S. Cavanaugh, Susan Chin, Alexander Cooper, Arthur Eisenberg, Lynne Elizabeth, Anastassia Fisyak, Karen A. Franck, Michael Freedman-Schnapp, Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Gan Golan, Jeffrey Hou, Te-Sheng Huang, Lisa Keller, Brad Lander, Peter Marcuse, Jonathan Marvel, Signe Nielsen, Michael Pyatok, Michael Rios, Jonathan Rose, Janette Sadik-Khan, Saskia Sassen, Paula Z. Segal, Sadra Shahab, Benjamin Shepard, Ron Shiffman, Gregory Smithsimon, Michael Sorkin, Nikki Stern, and Maya Wiley

Panelists at the 09.10.12 Oculus Book Talk: (l-r) Peter Marcuse; Nikki Stern; Sadra Shahab; Ron Shiffman, FAICP.

Daniel Fox

The aftermath of 9/11 brought into the consciousness of the public the critical importance of architectural design and public space within New York City’s built environment. People gathered in silence or to engage in dialogue within public, open spaces to find solidarity and attempt to make sense of the unimaginable. Voices of citizens in Town Hall scenarios impacted the direction and decisions made about the future of Ground Zero. People began to experience themselves in relationship to architecture and our shared public realm in a new and meaningful way. As time progressed, we all adjusted to the security measures of post-9/11, and the restriction of movement in places where none had previously existed. The Occupy Wall Street’s occupation of Zuccotti Park brought the nature of community and the power of physical space back into the headlines, this time with a focus on the right to freedom of assembly.

The Center for Architecture began a series of panels and discussions on how Occupy Wall Street was impacting the dialogue on public space. As was astutely observed, the conversation that had once been so critical post-9/11 was moving toward a different kind of societal discourse – democracy, social equity, and public place.

The Beyond Zuccotti Park book launch was held at the Center 09.10.12, followed by the third in the Freedom of Assembly series on 09.16.12 (see report above). The essays are as eclectic as the writers’ viewpoints, making them rich and provocative. The common thread, which is so clearly stated in the book’s acknowledgements, is their “commitment to the important role that public space, universal access, equity, and design can play to enhance democracy and promote freedom of expression.” The concepts of public commons and the agora became part of the conversation not only within the context of cultural citizenship, but also in the vital role design plays in forming the public sector.

In his essay “Emplacing Democratic Design,” Michael Rios tackles a very challenging issue: “…how the field of urbanism – as practiced by architects, planners, and urban designers – maintains the illusion of public space while making invisible certain segments of the public.” This is in contrast to, Rios writes, what “Henri Lefebvre (1991) called ‘the illusion of transparency,’ which masks the reality that spaces of the city are socially produced to serve power interests. “ If you contrast this to “Life and Death in Public Space,” the poignantly written essay by Nikki Stern who, from the perspective of having lost her husband on 9/11, describes her walk from the 9/11 Memorial to Zuccotti Park, you have a clear sense of the richness of the arc of this body of work.

Beyond Zuccotti Park is not written as, nor is it meant to be, a political manifesto. It is a compendium of ideas, challenges, reflections, observations, and thought-provoking questions that members of the design and planning community are grappling with as citizens and professionals committed to enhancing the public realm. Sitting in the audience at both the book launch and this most recent dialogue series, the Center of Architecture felt very much like an agora.

Oculus Book Review – High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky
By Joshua David and Robert Hammond
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

“Corner of the Sky” was once a song solely associated with the Broadway musical “Pippin.” Not anymore. Now it is synonymous with the experience of walking the High Line – which is every bit as theatrical. Home to more than 200 species of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, the raised rail tracks that once carried a cargo train known as the Lifeline of New York has become a beautiful respite above the fray. This is reflected not just in the beauty and serenity of the place, but by the different ways that people behave: there is actual strolling; looking up from a handheld device long enough to take in the sky or comment upon the architecture of a neighboring building; hand holding with an occasional kiss; children running on the stadium-style seating risers without parents chasing after them. The first few times I observed this it seemed unreal, like a stage set. I thought I was watching the opening scene of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”

The style of this book reflects that open space sensibility. While the details of the High Line story are far from a relaxing stroll along New York City’s park in the sky, the dialogue format between the two impresarios Joshua David and Robert Hammond makes for a very accessible and in-depth exchange. Their shared experience and sometime differing perspectives are candid and not veiled by hindsight. [editor’s note: check out David’s “Oculus Quick Take” podcast interview with Miguel Baltierra, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, here].

David and Hammond’s co-authored account describes their initial encounter at a community board meeting where flirtation morphed into obsession, not of each other but of the object of their mutual affection – saving a 70-year-old elevated railroad track. As with many of the improbable victories in New York’s history, with exemplars like Jane Jacobs and those who fought to save Grand Central Terminal, challenges are often met and won by those who did not understand the complexity of what they were initially getting into. If they did, they probably would not have entertained it in the first place, and certainly not persevered.

Lucky for us David and Hammond are two such people. In 1999, they formed Friends of the High Line and, for a decade, pushed against opposition groups, politicians advocating demolition, development problems, the economic downturn, and the aftermath of 9/11. This was the beginning of what ultimately became the innovative transformation of an urban ruin into an ecologically creative and socially vibrant public space.

The lush and evocative images in the book are a reminder that a walk along the High Line is a wonderful way to re-experience the joie de vivre of New York. Even on a very hot and muggy Saturday in August, the tempered and more relaxed behavior was still present and oh so very real.

Oculus Book Review: John Hill’s Guide to Contemporary Architecture

Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture
By John Hill
W.W. Norton 2012

John Hill’s Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture is no ordinary guide. Self-described as an “architourist,” Hill combines the playfulness of Dora the Explorer with Sherlock Holmes’ eye for the undiscovered. At his recent book talk at the Center for Architecture, Hill talked a bit about the process [editor’s note: check out John Hill’s “Oculus Quick Take” here]. “I pitched the idea to W.W. Norton after reviewing a number of New York-centric guidebooks and noticing that there was an absence of an updated contemporary guide, something I had been documenting on my various web pages from both before and after moving to New York in 2006. I thought about my own navigation through the city and what I wanted to share with others.”

Hill’s journey was self-initiated and took a great deal of tenacity to complete as he moved through his library of visual riches. Raimund Abraham’s Austrian Cultural Forum, a dynamic sliver of a building in Midtown, graces the cover of the book. “I am a fan of infill projects,” Hill noted. Other playful surprises for the urban explorer include: the Terian Design Center by hanrahanMeyers Architects on the Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn campus; the Wonder Woman-plane-like link at the American Academy of Arts and Letters by James Vincent Czajka; and Vito Acconci’s “Wavewall” installation on the side of the West 8th Street Station in Coney Island. Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture is more than a guide. It is a creative time capsule that captures the re-envisioning of New York City, boroughs and all.