From Norway to Guatemala: Art, Infrastructure Pave the Way

Event: Detour: Art, Architecture, Cities, and Landscapes Symposium
Location: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 01.19.10
Keynote Speaker: Peter Zumthor — Principal, Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner (Haldenstein)
Panelists: Craig Dykers, AIA — Principal, Snøhetta (NYC); Einar Jarmund — Partner, Jarmund/Vigsnæs (Oslo); Svein Rønning — Artist & Head, Arts Council for the National Tourist Routes Project (Bergen); Nader Tehrani — Partner, Office dA (Boston)
Moderator: David van der Leer — Assistant Curator of Architecture and Design, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Conversation: Jerry Gorovoy — Artist’s Assistant, Louise Bourgeois Studio; Nancy Spector — Chief Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Organizers: Architectural League of New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; in conjunction with the “Detour” exhibition at Parsons, The New School for Design
Sponsors: The Royal Norwegian Consulate General


Landscape/Pavilion in Eggum, Norway, by Snøhetta.


The designers and artists commissioned by Norway’s National Tourist Routes program face an enviable challenge: beauty overload management. To prevent visitors on its driving tours from growing bored by hours of dramatic scenery, the government seeks out creative talent from Norway and beyond to punctuate the experience and focus attention on specific features of the landscape. By hiring innovative architects and artists to work on infrastructure projects, such as bathrooms and picnic shelters, the project simultaneously provides key services and inserts what program director Svein Rønning referred to as “question marks,” or unexpected, playful, and sometimes destabilizing cultural experiences that serve as both complement and counterpoint to the spectacular natural surroundings.

The Guggenheim symposium, scheduled to coincide with the closing of a Parsons exhibition celebrating the National Tourist Routes program, used the Norwegian example as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion about design, infrastructure, and community. Snøhetta’s Craig Dykers, AIA, discussed a pro-bono project in Guatemala City in which the firm, approached about the possibility of creating a signature building to raise the city’s profile, recommended that the municipality instead focus its attention on a project that would have a far greater impact on its residents: fixing its dilapidated sidewalks. The design team drew up initial sketches for new sidewalks and street furniture, developed ideas about ways to incorporate the work of local artists and craftsmen, and then turned the project over to the city to implement.

Dykers expressed admiration for the National Tourist Routes and similar government initiatives but said that it was ultimately up to designers to take on socially relevant work, with or without external incentives. “As an architect, I think it’s important that you think about ways you can do it without the help of government… that you initiate things on your own, that you take on tasks that might not be well-paid, that have the kind of integrity to move a city forward, on the smaller scale as well as the very large scale.”

My Lawnmower, My Enemy

Event: Ten Days for Oppositional Architecture: Towards Post-Capitalist Spaces / David Harvey Lecture
Location: Gair Building No. 6, Dumbo, 11.21.09
Speaker: David Harvey — Geographer, City University of New York
Organizer: An Architektur


Levittown, NY.

Courtesy Google Earth

The current recession served as a point of departure for the Ten Days for Oppositional Architecture, a workshop and lecture series founded in 2004 by the Berlin-based journal An Architektur. Pointing to the crisis as both sign and consequence of a fundamentally rotten economic and political infrastructure, the organizers posited that the only route to socially responsible practice is through conscious, active opposition to capitalism and the political systems with which it is entwined.

To bolster their case, An Architektur called on David Harvey, an academic and self-described “boring old Marxist” who has spent decades tracing (among other things) conflicts between capitalism and the social good in the development of the built environment. Case in point: suburbia. Although the American Dream — manicured lawns, paid-off mortgages — may seem like a natural emanation of the collective national psyche, it is largely the result of state and private-sector promotion of suburban development, often as a means to questionable ends. For instance, long-term mortgages were first made widely available partially in an attempt to subdue frequent strikes in the 1930s. “It was said that debt-encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike,” said Harvey. “This is very much about the social control mechanism and political control mechanism.”

This and related programs have had a profound impact on the nation, Harvey claimed, including leading to a political shift to the right, and to environmental degradation brought about by sprawl. America may love the suburbs, but that doesn’t mean that the suburbs are good for America. Therefore, offering alternative visions of the American Dream offers architects one possibility for meaningful “oppositional” practice.

Harvey declined to offer specific tactical guidelines to would-be activists, saying that people on the ground were best placed to develop intelligent solutions to particular problems. However, he cautioned against what he identified as a common tendency toward oversimplification and overspecialization. Architects, like sociologists, feminists, and economists can and should play an integral role in transforming society; to do so effectively, however, they must be willing to step outside their area of expertise to form a comprehensive understanding of a given situation. Design is important, he said, but “the problem is when you start talking about the silver bullet and say when you change the space everything changes. Well, it doesn’t.”

Shape-Shifting Buildings to the Rescue

Event: Adaptive Building Initiative
Location: The Cooper Union, 10.28.09
Speakers: Chuck Hoberman — Hoberman Associates & Adaptive Building Initiative; Craig Schwitter, PE — Buro Happold Consulting Engineers & Adaptive Building Initiative
Organizers: The Architectural League of New York


Adaptive Building Initiative designed an automated shading system, shown in open and closed positions, for Foster + Partners’ Aldar Central Market in Abu Dhabi.

Foster + Partners

When energy (in the form of light and heat) enters and exits a building in an uncontrolled fashion, unwelcome fluctuations in the internal environment result: spaces become too hot or cold, too bright or dark. Typically, fossil fuel-guzzling mechanical systems are used to counter these effects, making the building sector as a whole one of America’s biggest energy drains. However, if a building’s outer envelope could prevent unwanted energy transfers from occurring in the first place, mechanical workarounds would be unnecessary and energy consumption would drop dramatically.

This is the challenge that the Adaptive Building Initiative (ABI), a joint venture established in 2008 by Buro Happold and Hoberman Associates, has set for itself. As its name indicates, the firm designs building envelopes that can respond intelligently to environmental cues by changing shape or size. Projects include several shading systems for Foster + Partners projects, each consisting of a series of geometrical panels programmed to adjust for the amount of sunlight as needed.

ABI principals Chuck Hoberman and Craig Schwitter, PE, view their firms as part of an emerging movement that will fundamentally change building design as environmental concerns grow. “It’s a space that’s very undefined, I think: this concept of how energy can affect architecture,” said Schwitter. “The parameters are changing under our feet.”

Architecture Schools Struggle to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing Profession

Event: Deans’ Roundtable and Exhibition Opening: “Arch Schools 2009: Visions of The Future”
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.17.09
Speakers: George Ranalli, AIA — Dean, City College of New York; Mark Wigley — Dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation; Anthony Vidler — Dean, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art; Urs Gauchat, Hon. AIA — Dean, New Jersey Institute of Technology; Judy DiMaio, AIA — Dean, New York Institute of Technology; William Morrish — Dean, Parsons, The New School for Design; Thomas Hanrahan, AIA — Dean, Pratt Institute; Stan Allen, AIA — Dean, Princeton University; Evan Douglis — Dean, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Marilyn Jordan Taylor, FAIA — Dean, University of Pennsylvania;
Moderator: Robert Campbell, FAIA — Architecture Critic, Boston Globe
Organizers: Center for Architecture

“There is a perception that the world of architectural teaching and the world of architectural practice are changing more rapidly now than they usually do,” said Robert Campbell, FAIA, architecture critic for the Boston Globe, in his introduction to the AIANY’s fifth annual Deans’ Roundtable. In recent years, he posited, students have become far more diverse in terms of nationality, ethnicity, and economic background, and have grown increasingly concerned with environmental and social responsibility. Rapid technological progress has led to significant changes in many curricula and created a widening gap in computational prowess between students and instructors. At the same time, lines have blurred between traditionally distinct disciplines such as architecture, urban planning, and landscape design. While the ten assembled deans accepted Campbell’s general assessment of the issues facing architecture schools, their interpretations of the specific nature of the changes taking place differed, as did their thoughts about how to respond.

One of the liveliest debates centered on technology. Several speakers claimed that hand drawing was a fundamental part of architectural education; but others, such as Princeton’s Stan Allen, AIA, said it was time to move on. “I think we can talk about certain fundamental ideas of spatial imagination — the ability to think three-dimensionally, an understanding of projection systems, and so on — that belong historically to the culture of drawing…. you can get at all of that in a much more sophisticated, and, I actually think, faster, way through computation.”

Columbia University GSAPP’s Mark Wigley agreed with Allen, calling the hand-vs.-computer debate “unbelievably reactionary and unnecessary.” However, he expressed confidence that the wide diversity of educational philosophies and approaches found in different schools augured well for the future of the profession. “One of the great things about schools of architecture in the U.S. is that they’re all so different, and that to some extent they’ve managed to resist the forces of standardization.”

Department of Energy Tackles Zero Net Energy Buildings

Event: Are High-Performance Buildings Really Performing? A Discussion with Drury B. Crawley
Location: Con Edison, 09.08.2009
Speakers: Drury B. Crawley, AIA — Technology Development Manager, U.S. Department of Energy
Organizers: ASHRAE; Urban Green Council


U.S. Department of Energy’s 2025 Goal.

Courtesy Net Zero Energy Commercial Building Initiative

No matter how often they’re repeated, the statistics stun. Responsible for 40% of all energy consumed in the U.S., buildings are the nation’s largest energy drain, beating out both transportation and industry. They use 73% of our electricity and 55% of our natural gas. At 9% of the total carbon dioxide released into the world’s atmosphere, their direct contribution to global warming exceeds that of the combined economies of Japan, France, and the United Kingdom. And, emphasized Drury B. Crawley, head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Net Zero Commercial Building Initiative, the problem is only getting worse.

Crawley is confident that flat-lining buildings’ energy use is technically possible, but stressed that there is no magic bullet. Plastering the nation in photovoltaics is not enough; instead, designers and scientists need to develop a better understanding of the specific consumption patterns of individual buildings and the people who use them, and strategize accordingly.

While a number of recent bills have established firm deadlines for weaning American buildings off energy, Crawley expressed concern that on-the-ground activity was not keeping pace with legislative ambitions. Responding to the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act requirement that all new commercial buildings be at zero consumption by 2030, followed by 100% of the remaining stock by 2050, he remarked, “I’m glad I won’t be working. There are a lot of buildings out there.”

Bioclimatic is the New Green

Event: Basic Bioclimatic Design: High Performance, Simplified
Location: Center for Architecture, 06.22.09
Speakers: Hillary Brown, FAIA, LEED AP — Principal, New Civic Works; Glenn Garrison, AIA — Principal, Glenn Garrison Incorporated
Organizer: AIANY Committee on the Environment


Queens Botanical Garden designed by BKSK Architects.

©Jeff Goldberg/Esto

Although sustainable design has made progress in recent years, the sheer scale of the A/E/C industry’s environmental impact proves that there is still a great deal of work to be done. According to Hillary Brown, FAIA, LEED AP, principal of New Civic Works, and Glenn Garrison, AIA, of Glenn Garrison Incorporated, bioclimatic design is the logical next step.

In bioclimatic design, architects develop an understanding of their site’s relationship to its natural and manmade context, then use this information as the starting point for the building’s design, Brown explained. For example, by examining exactly how the sun strikes a site throughout the day and during different seasons, designers can manipulate elements such as building shape and window placement to maximize daylight penetration and minimize the need for artificial heating and cooling.

One successful project, according to Brown, is BKSK Architects’ design for the Queens Botanical Garden, which employed bioclimatic design strategies. The LEED-Platinum building was designed to be flooded with natural light; water management techniques, such as gray water and storm water re-use, unify the building with the landscape; and energy consumption is reduced by using solar panels and a geothermal system.

However, despite the advantages of this holistic, context-based approach, Brown argued that basic bioclimatic principles are too often neglected in current architectural practices. “I’ve been struck in consultations with design teams how many buildings are improperly oriented, or are massed or fenestrated without recognition of different concerns of each of the façades. We really have to reacquaint ourselves with some basic operating principles.”

Firms Use Nature to Rethink Suburbia

Event: Architectural League Emerging Voices Series
Location: The Urban Center, 03.05.09
Speakers: Shane Coen — Principal, Coen + Partners (Minneapolis & NYC); Derek Dellekamp — Principal, Dellekamp Arquitectos (Mexico City)
Organizer: The Architectural League of New York

Mayo Plan #1 (left); Tlacolula street rendering (right).

(left) Coen + Partners; (right) Dellekamp Arquitectos

Suburban development isn’t typically associated with innovation and specificity, but Shane Coen and Derek Dellekamp want to change this. At the first of this year’s Emerging Voices series at The Architectural League, the two firms discussed their successes and shortcomings in their efforts to re-examine suburbia.

In Rochester, MN, the Mayo family (of Clinic fame) asked landscape architecture firm Coen + Partners to create a new residential development on its former 220-acre farm. Forced to work with a banal street plan, following the typical curvilinear cul-de-sac model already approved by local authorities, the firm developed a landscaping strategy grounded in the site’s history and ecology. Five-foot-tall grasses were introduced throughout the development to erase property lines, while trees, fences, and house plots were situated along innate linear axes to give residents new ways to experience their natural surroundings and interact with neighbors. Coen worked closely with Altus Architecture and Salmela Architect to design 120 contemporary, geometrical homes based on the area’s traditional agricultural buildings.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, Dellekamp Arquitectos is designing a new suburban community consisting of 1,000 low-cost social housing units. Working with a very tight budget, the firm reconfigured the generic floor plan used for these kinds of developments, responding to Oaxaca’s sweltering climate by maximizing shade and providing cool breezes. Cars are moved from their privileged position in front of a house to a shared site nearby, freeing outdoor space for family use and allowing for the creation of inner pedestrian streets. In a friendly nod to Oaxaca’s lively traditional architecture, each house is covered in vibrant bands of contrasting paint.

Dellekamp’s Oaxaca development is currently in construction, but Coen’s Mayo project has stalled. Although the plan has been widely praised in the design community, the Mayo family and its conservative community decided that they wanted their neighborhood to be more traditionally suburban. Coen’s lesson? “Never try to talk a family into doing anything.” With some perseverance, however, Coen will hopefully revive his strategies elsewhere.