Architects Search for Public Relief

Event: OUTING THE WATER CLOSET: Sex, Gender, and the Public Toilet
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.03.07
Panel 1: The Social Construction of the Bathroom: Beatriz Colomina — Professor, History & Theory, Director of Graduate Studies, PhD Program, Princeton University; Clara Greed — Professor of Urban Planning and Architecture, University of the West of England; Dr. Ruth Barcan — Professor, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, The University of Sydney, Australia; Dr. Barbara Penner — Professor in Architectural History and Theory, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London); Deborah Taylor, AIA, LEED AP — Chief Sustainability Officer, NYC Department of Buildings; Matthew Sapolin — Executive Director, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities; Bronwen Pardes — Sexual Health Educator, HIV Counselor, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital
Panel 2: Building Gender/Building Toilets: Joel Sanders, AIA — Principal, Joel Sanders Architect; Andrew Whalley, AA Dipl, AIA, RIBA — Partner-in-Charge, Grimshaw; David Lewis — Partner, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects; Charles McKinney — Chief of Design, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation; Pauline Park — Gender Rights Activist; Lori Pavese Mazor, AIA — Associate Vice President for Planning and Design, New York University; Harvey Molotch — Acting Director of the Program in Metropolitan Studies & Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and Department of Sociology, NYU
Organizers: New York University; Center for Architecture
Sponsors: AIANY; NYU Office of Campus Planning and Design; with support from NYU academic units: Graduate School of Arts and Science, Department of Sociology, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, Gender and Sex Institute


Architects can relieve the stress of public restrooms.

Jessica Sheridan

Public restrooms have long been a source of anxiety, ranging from cleanliness and privacy to size restrictions and accessibility. Though designers may focus more on stall dimensions or number of sinks required by code, examining public restrooms from a cultural viewpoint calls attention to the things we take for granted. The water closet should not only be thought of as a physical space that services our biological needs, but also as a space of representation, reflecting normative ideas about gender, sex, and the body.

While designers take exhaustive measures to ensure visual discretion in public restrooms, boundaries are still transgressed by our senses of sound, touch, and smell. Whether from a wet door handle or lingering odor, explains Dr. Ruth Barcan, professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney in Australia, these senses evoke an “unseen other” and fear of airborne contagion, agitating personal insecurities at our most vulnerable moment in public. For some, however, worries begin before entering the restroom. Gender specific signs can be a stopping point for those who fall outside the cultural binary of “men” and “women,” and parents with small children of the opposite gender must negotiate levels of appropriateness in choosing one door over the other. A possible solution — gender-neutral bathrooms — raises concerns about sexual violence and personal safety.

In general, public restroom design is guided by construction codes, which, as cultural texts, reflect our deep-seated prejudices about size, accessibility, or gender. By unpacking and reworking these codes, architects can respond to anxieties, and help provide a better sense of public relief.

Designers Dwell on Dwelling

Event: Rethinking Domesticity
Location: The Urban Center, 10.19.07
Speakers: Elisa Orlanski Ours — Vice President, Planning & Predevelopment Department, Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group; Joel Sanders, AIA — Principal, Joel Sanders Architect & Associate Professor of Architecture, Yale University; Calvin Tsao, FAIA — Co-Founder, Tsao & McKown Architects & President, The Architecture League of New York; Lois Weinthal — Director, BFA Interior Design Program, Parsons The New School for Design
Moderator: Marisa Bartolucci — Editor & Writer
Organizer: The Architectural League of New York, as part of House & Garden‘s Design Happening program series

Nolan Park

House in Nolan Park on Governors Island.

Jessica Sheridan

Do contemporary dwellings reflect current living habits and desires? Are people truly ready to see the radical changes in their daily lives reflected in their living spaces? By serving as liaisons between clients and designers, integrating new technologies into old typologies, and reinforcing new trends through publication, designers can actively address issues of domesticity in their work and influence the shape of contemporary dwellings.

Currently, much of the domestic realm is shaped by status symbols and nostalgia, neither of which reflects actual living habits. A preference for McMansions may have less to do with the need for square footage and more to do with displays of wealth, according to writer and editor Marisa Bartolucci. Likewise, our sentimentality for vestiges of the past — such as formal dining rooms — may explain why certain unused spaces continue to haunt contemporary dwellings.

While old conventions influence dwellers’ decisions about their homes, attention must be given to forms that more accurately embody modern life. There is an increasing emphasis on spatial flexibility, leading to new definitions of privacy and work habits. Thus, today, a dining room might double as a home office or be integrated into the kitchen itself — a flexible and efficient solution that responds to practical needs in a time when space is at a premium.

Domesticity cannot be limited only to architecture; economic and social considerations are relevant and necessary, especially when it comes to effecting change. Yet, class and income do not necessarily dictate general domestic habits. Calvin Tsao, FAIA, co-founder of Tsao & McKown Architects, noted that apartment plans for residences in Bed-Stuy and Manhattan are similar in both layout and square footage, with only significant differences in materials, details, and location. Clearly our living habits are deeply engrained, and this comfort may ultimately be what maintains the status quo when it comes to contemporary dwelling. Architects continually generate innovative alternatives, but whether dwellers are ready to break free from conventional patterns and embrace these new changes is something that has yet to be seen.

20/20 Hindsight on Pecha Kucha NY

Event: Pecha Kucha NY
Location: St. Mark’s Church, 10.10.07
Speakers: Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA — TEN Arquitectos; Israel Kandarian — 2×4; James Slade, AIA, & Hayes Slade — Slade Architecture; José Parlá — Artist; Andrew Zago — Zago Architecture; Jessica Root — Writer, TreeHugger; Mariah Robertson — Artist; Kanu Agrawal, Melanie Domino, Edward Richardson, Brad Walters — Editors, Perspecta 39: Re_Urbanism: Transforming Capitals; Eric C. Shiner — Independent Curator & author, Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York; Jeannette Kuo & Aziza Chaouni — KuoChaouni Design Collaborative; Annie Choi — Writer, Dear Architects II: The Revenge; Christian Acker & Kyle Talbott — Graphic Designers, Handselecta; Benjamin H. Bratton — Yahoo!, SCI Arc, UCLA; Craig Dykers, AIA — SNØHETTA
Organizers: Pecha Kucha NY


Courtesy Pecha Kucha NY

By now, many are familiar with Pecha Kucha‘s patented 20×20 presentation formula: designers are allowed to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each, giving them a total of 6 minutes 40 seconds to share their most captivating works. Even within these strict guidelines, creative professionals will always attempt to set themselves apart, and NYC’s fourth Pecha Kucha night was no exception.

The most apparent break in form came from 2×4’s Israel Kandarian who shared t-shirt designs that explore the public space of private identity. Flipping though many more than 20 slides, Kandarian’s images showed architects, students, and grandmothers holding t-shirts with phrases like “post-modernism, pre-materialism” or “Daft Punk, but less techno” — phrases that at first amused, but eventually grated on the attention span of the audience. Artist Mariah Robertson, on the other hand, projected her slides on the ceiling. While the audience was clearly entertained by her purposefully disheveled performance, it’s hard to say exactly what the content was.

Sticking closer to form was crowd favorite Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA, from TEN Arquitectos whose images of frogs and pyramids loosely inspire the firm’s work. However, there were no images of projects, as Norten proudly declared, “There’s no time to talk about architecture in six minutes.” This claim did not stop SNØHETTA’s Craig Dykers, AIA, from giving a concise overview of the Norwegian National Opera House. He ultimately won the approval of the audience by sharing that employees at his firm collaborate to agree on their own salaries and vacation time, both of which, judging by the applause, are unusually high for the profession.

Pecha Kucha’s success is entirely dependent on the quality of its presenters whose performances can make even the fast pace of 20×20 feel slow at times. In retrospect, it’s difficult to recall the exact content of the presentations, as sound bites don’t provide much of a lingering aftertaste. But this highlights what could be the evening’s greatest triumph: you may not remember exactly what you’ve seen, but you know you feel inspired.

Critique: What the Other 90% Needs

Event: Design for the Other 90%
Location: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, through 09.23.07
Curator: Cynthia E. Smith

Bamboo Treadle Pump

The Bamboo Treadle Pump, designed by Gunnar Barnes of Rangpur/Dinajpur Rural Service and IDE Nepal, is used in Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Mayanmar, Cambodia, and Zambia to allow farmers to access groundwater during the dry season.

©2003 International Development Enterprises, courtesy Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Both provocative and critical to the well being of individuals and their communities, the innovations presented in Design for the Other 90% at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum aims for relevancy in our current aesthetics-obsessed environment. The exhibition offers a glimpse into how design may encourage growth and prosperity for those who have compromised access to basic human needs. The show addresses categories such as shelter, water, health, and energy, presenting a small collection of products meant to improve the quality of life for those in developing countries. For example, the MoneyMaker Block Press, designed by Martin Fisher and used in various African locations, allows 5-8 workers to produce up to 800 bricks a day. The increased productivity speaks for itself; these are designs that are being put to good use.

For an exhibition striving to emphasize the power of design, however, there is a serious lack of visual media depicting these items actually in use, or even in the context in which the other 90% live. While some products, including the Water Storage System, designed by International Development Enterprises (IDE) India, or Bamboo Treadle Pump, designed by Gunnar Barnes of Rangpur/Dinajpur Rural Service and IDE Nepal, are easily imagined in rural towns, the Solar Dish Kitchen, designed by BASIC Initiative Mexico Program of the University of Texas and University of Washington, or Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child look out of place, provoking issues of regional and cultural specificity that are no stranger to most architects and beg the question: what position are we in as designers to anticipate what the “other” really needs?

The few items shown in action are illuminating on the design level, but also highlight another drastic shortcoming of the exhibition: the definition of design has been limited to mean “objects” — gadgets that, while useful and important, are more like emergency tactics rather than long-term strategies for change. For instance, The LifeStraw, designed by Torben Vestergaard Frandsen and used in Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Uganda, is an invention that can filter typhoid and cholera bacteria to provide adequate drinking water. Yet, imagining the straw as a lifetime solution reveals its own improbability as anything but a temporary fix to a much larger and significant environmental and economic problem. Designers are surely capable of imagining more complex strategies, and not just topical Band-Aids.

Both the vital need for designers to step outside the high-end design world of the privileged 10%, and the potential for creativity are reasons enough to make Design for the Other 90% worthy of conversation and debate, whatever its shortcomings may be. The tools on display offer interesting ideas, but are only the first step, and understandably so; the design process can be long and tedious, and rarely generates a perfect first attempt. Hopefully, if more designers are inspired to participate, better and more enduring solutions may be around the corner.

On the Road: John Margolies Reminisces

Event: John Margolies in conversation with Michael Bierut and Phil Patton
Location: The Urban Center, 07.25.07
Speakers: Michael Bierut — Partner, Pentagram; Phil Patton — Contributing Editor, Wired, Esquire, ID, and writer, The New York Times
Moderator: John Margolies — author, photographer, lecturer on American commercial architecture and design
Organizer: The Architectural League of New York

National Freshwater Hall of Fame

National Freshwater Hall of Fame, Hayward, Wisconsin.

John Margolies, courtesy Architectural League of New York

Clicking through slides, John Margolies provides a quick glimpse into his story of American roadside architecture — a landscape of wigwam-shaped motels, folk art mini-golf, and statuesque gas pumps that, as he says, almost seem like people. Rattling off names, dates, and locations, his mental map reads like an illustrated autobiography, complete with anecdotes for each stop along his journey. Always captured with brilliant blue skies and free of cars and trash, Margolies’s photographs preserve vivid moments from an American landscape that is quickly disappearing.

Within this vanishing landscape, Margolies’s images carry the burden of a nostalgic pretense. Appealing to consumers’ memories of a time gone by, modern businesses mimic the 1950s aesthetic that invigorates his photographs in their logotypes and interior decoration, bypassing the need for real substance. The true strength of his work, though, lies in the authentic and individualized American spirit it captures, not in a shallow discussion of composition and styling.

The once eccentric and democratic landscape has morphed into one of corporate predictability with decorated sheds replacing the now obsolete ducks. Yet despite this increasing homogenization, one could argue that Americans still long for a personal touch. At least one major coffee shop chain has tried to capitalize on the hand crafted, as one audience member pointed out, with its phony handwritten posters meant to inspire visions of silk-screening rather than digital press.

Amidst half-hearted corporate attempts to appeal to Americans’ sense of individuality, we can look back at roadside architecture today and lament the disappearance of the genuine spirit they convey. But we must also remember that, in its day, this same architecture was considered cheap and tawdry, dismissed as too commercial to be taken seriously. Margolies’s photographs, then, provoke an important question: if architecture in the American landscape is a personification of those who live there, what will the endless stream of big boxes and glass façades say about the state of our spirit to those in the future? One can hope that someone with the same love and vision for the vernacular landscape as Margolies will be there to tell part of the story.

Architecture Sells Out

Location: Center for Architecture, 06.27.07
Speakers: Keller Easterling — Associate Professor of Architecture, Yale School of Architecture; Martha Kohen — Professor & Director, School of Architecture & College of Design, Construction, and Planning, University of Florida; Mary McLeod — Professor of Architecture, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Elsie Maio — Brand Strategist & President, Maio and Company; Michel Mein — Executive Creative Director, The 7th Art; Marvin Meltzer, AIA — Meltzer/Mandl Architects.
Moderator: Anna Klingman, Assoc. AIA — principal, KL!NGMANN Architecture Brand Development
Organizer: Anna Klingmann; AIANY

Dubai’s Internet City

Dubai’s Internet City — branding at an urban scale.

Courtesy Dubai Internet City

Branding can be dismissed as laboring over logos and aesthetics — visual representations that are easily recognizable and symbolic. These days, however, it has come to mean a total identity package; a name is attached to an entire lifestyle, not just a single product. In this way, architecture may be a powerful instrument in orchestrating the experiential aspects of brands. The question, then, is what this involvement with branding could mean for our urban environments.

A city like Dubai seems to be the quintessential example of branding at the urban scale. With names like Internet City, Healthcare City, Humanitarian City, and Knowledge Village, these smaller entities each maintain their own logo, slogan, architectural icons, and even web presence, but together form a “Dubai Land.” Yet, built without an existing population or history, one must wonder what depth there is to these cities and their pre-established identities.

Arguably, excesses of free land and lax economic zoning make Dubai more of an exception than a rule as an urban branding strategy. This congregate of cities is more accurately reflected in special-interest communities in America, rather than major metropolitan areas. In actuality, a city like NYC could even be said to represent urbanism that resists this type of branding because, as is commonly noted, the grid takes prominence over the buildings. While the fickleness of style and taste plays itself out, the city is able to retain its cohesive urban identity.

Though branding has and will play an important role in the business of architecture, architects put the field at risk when they position themselves at the disposal of marketing trends. The consumerism that comes with branding may reveal itself in the form of short-term dollar signs for developers and landlords, but it could be at the cost of long-term urban design. Branding breeds homogeneity, and designers should not compromise their individuality for the latest fashion. As participants in a discipline that inherently must look toward the future to accommodate the needs of people and their communities, architects should set the trends, not follow them.

Architects Provide Life Support

Event: Social Housing and the Social Contract
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.30.07
Speakers: Bruce Becker, AIA — Becker+Becker; Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani — The Graduate Center, CUNY & UC Berkeley; Dr. Barbara Lane — Growth and Structure of Cities, Bryn Mawr College; Dr. Susan Saegert — The Graduate Center, CUNY and Director, Center for Human Environments
Moderator: Susan Szenasy — Metropolis
Introduction: Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP, AIANY President
Sponsors: Center for Human Environments, The Graduate Center, CUNY; in partnership with AIANY Housing Committee

Coop City

Speakers call to revive and revise the social contract for architects.

Courtesy Google Earth

As the backdrop to our daily lives, housing design in particular plays a significant role in affecting how people live and develop. But architecture is not the only driving force behind the success of a society’s affordable housing; it falls within a systemic framework that is at once complex and dynamic. For this reason, taking part in the social contract for architects can mean an extra challenge that goes above and beyond their typical call of duty.

Frequently, especially in affordable housing design, attention to details is sacrificed for the sake of the bigger picture. Light, air, safety, and communal space are just a few key elements in housing that can enrich the inhabitants’ quality of life regardless of income, but are often neglected for financial reasons. Yet, architectural refinement and quality play a vital role in the social contract because they give many occupants a sense of pride in where they live and allow them to create their own sense of home.

While it may be important, design is only part of a larger equation for success; financial and managerial problems can make or break any well-designed affordable housing project. Actively taking part in the social contract, however, may provide the key for architects to make their role practically indispensable. By learning how to balance funding, design, and management issues, architects can help to create truly sustainable projects in which the initial investment may be more costly, but the long-term savings pay off economically, socially, and environmentally.

Nevertheless, after all is said and done, can architects really do anything if they lack control over a project’s parameters, which are typically controlled by the client? Though the suggestions, such as proposing additional funding strategies to clients, collaborating to encourage a more well-rounded mission, and not allowing the client to fully dictate the program, seem somewhat vague, the overall message is clear: architects need to take more social responsibility. The social contract is nothing new, but in a time when public life and concepts of a collective “us” seem to be slipping away, it desperately needs to be revived and revised. Architects, as creative visionaries, may just be the people to resuscitate.

Front Line Frays Home Front

Event: Book Launch/Beatriz Colomina
Location: Labyrinth Books, 04.05.07
Speaker: Beatriz Colomina — professor of history and theory, Director of Graduate Studies, Ph.D. Program, Founding Director, Program in Media and Modernity, Princeton University, & author, Domesticity at War (MIT Press)
Moderator: Rachel Schauer — contributor, e-OCULUS
Organizer: Labyrinth Books

Domesticity at War

Domesticity at War, by Beatriz Colomina.

Holding up her recently published book, Domesticity at War, professor and theorist Beatriz Colomina explained that the cover image of a quaint, 1950s suburban living room, complete with fireplace and television, is actually a fallout shelter. This is exemplary of the impact of war on domesticity. From the Eameses’ use of plywood military products to the “dial-a-view” window scenes for underground shelters, Colomina’s new work explores the relationship between American architecture and war culture during and following World War II.

War propaganda encouraged Americans to celebrate their country by saving face in the public realm. A key symbol of patriotism was the suburban lawn, whose maintenance became a civic duty for those on the home front. Featured in advertisements at the time as a green paradise, the lawn was a form of therapy promoting hygiene, happiness, and health. However, lurking below its surface was a battlefield — a site of full-fledged attack on moles, worms, and other insects potentially devastating perfectly manicured blades of grass. Homeowners, in an effort to protect the lawn from infection or invasion, were told to use weaponry more common to war than the household. How do you get rid of that pesky mole? Knock it out with your spade, or better yet, gas it!

As warfare tactics transformed from WWII to the Cold War, so too did the obsession with health. The home’s interior came to reflect a new focus on the psychological, rather than physical, well-being of the family, offering refuge from hostile tensions on the outside. Where once it was a sanitary problem, the kitchen now served as a prime laboratory to cure mental woes. An ad in House Beautiful magazine exclaimed: “It wasn’t a psychiatrist Mother wanted — it was a new kitchen!”

While the changing definitions of public and private space are nothing new, Domesticity at War takes this relationship to the next level by tracing how it has been and will be influenced directly by war. As Colomina says in the closing of her book, “War does not end. It evolves, and architecture with it.”