Thursday, January 31, 2008

Anxious Climate

Dusty Relief, 2002

More often than not, the conversation about sustainable and green design is based on the concept of cleaning something dirty—air , water, soil. It's about removing harmful elements—toxins, volatile organic compounds—and creating a cleaner, more efficient system (see yesterday's post about the bright and "clean-scrubbed" housing project in Santa Monica).

An exhibit called Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment opens tonight at the Maryland Institute College of Art. It's curated by David Gissen, who recently left his post at Penn State and his home in Baltimore for a teaching position at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I talked with David a bit about the show.

"The thing that really frightens me about some green design is that it’s very Victorian," he says. "It’s about cleaning and filtering. Everyone is so embarrassed. And in the name of environmentalism, we're doing it again. Dirt will always be there, and the buildings in this exhibition try to reach out to it."

David set out to find experimental architects looking at environment and the built form in new ways. Anxious Climate highlights three: France's R&Sie, Madrid's Amid [Cero 9], and Swiss/French designer Phillipe Rahm.

In Dusty Relief, the firm R&Sie developed a concept museum that considers the role of the “white box” gallery within a very polluted city, in this case, Singapore.

Inside, the gallery is your normal white box. But outside, the architects placed an electromagnetic skin to attract the dirt and pollution from the air in the city. The process renders the pollution visible, making it a furry, dirty layer of hair on the exterior. "This project reveals the corrupted environment of a city known for its high degree of environmental control and enables us to see how the experience of art and culture often occurs in an artificially 'cleansed' environment within pollution-ridden cities," Gissen writes in a pamphlet about the exhibit.

The Archimedes House floor plan, 2005

In Phillipe Rahm's case, the architect inverted the traditional blueprint of the house in order to capitalize on natural ventilation. Most everyone knows that heat rises, that the first floor of a building is often the coolest, the top level the warmest. With his Archimedes House design, Rahm emphasized the way air moves through a building—the chimney effect—to help heat and cool a residence. He then put the cooler activities, like sleeping, on the first floor, and the warmer activities on top.

Amid [Cero 9] examined how architecture could produce new forms of nature. In their project The Magic Mountain (pictured in a series of shots below, courtesy of their website) the architects "proposed harnessing the latent heat emitted from a power generator in Ames, Iowa, to create an environment for a garden of flowers that would festoon the industrial site," Gissen writes. "The goals were to reconsider the appearance of nature in the city, advance the emergence of nature in unusual contexts, and introduce natural sensations—from robust odors to color—into the urban infrastructure."

The architects refer to it as an "Ecosystem Mask."

"What’s nice about these architects is that they reach out to things that aren’t always reached out to—humidity, a yak, roses, dust," Gissen says.

The exhibit runs through March 9 in MICA's Meyerhoff Gallery.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sustainable and Affordable

The American Institute of Architects just gave the National Honor Award to Kanner Architects in Los Angeles for their design of affordable, sustainable housing. The 26th Street Low Income Housing Project in Santa Monica is a contemporary and clean modern structure with 44 units. It's integrated into the neighborhood, close to shops and transit, and it uses simple design techniques like natural ventilation. By orienting the building so that it captures the cross ventilation off of the ocean, the architects minimize cooling costs and the need for unsightly and noisy HVAC units on the roofs. An irrigation system captures rain water to irrigate landscaping and mitigates storm water run off into the ocean.

AIA noted that, "In addition to input from the City of Santa Monica and the community at large, the final design incorporates the region’s mild climate, historical precedents of Southern California Modernist architecture, and the human scale of residents and pedestrians."

They go on to call it a "ray of hope" for affordable housing in the U.S. "The architects used the light and breezes, which are free, wonderfully. The building is beautiful in a clean-scrubbed way while creating a safe haven. The design extends beyond the property line by addressing critical social issues."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Lego turned 50 yesterday. The company estimates that there are now 62 Lego bricks for every person in the world. 250,000 of them went into this installation of a skyscraper built in Manhattan last year by a Copenhagen architecture group called BIG.

Mini Motel

It's called The Mini Motel and it's being billed as the solution to canceled flights. For $39.95 you get this portable tent that includes an air mattress and an alarm clock among other amenities. You pop it together in three steps:

Step One:

Step Two:

Step Three:

The webpage suggests other uses:

With the Mini Motel, there is no hotel bill, and no concern about local motels being all booked up. Air, train and bus terminals are all great places to use your Mini Motel. Actually, there are many creative ways that people are using Mini Motel!

It says the Mini Motel was invented by a man named Frank Giotto who has a number of "successful companies" that keep him traveling. After 9-11, Giotto believed security concerns were clogging air traffic and causing the increased cancellation of flights and the subsequent overbooking of nearby hotels.

Which raises some questions: beyond the logistical challenge of adding a tent to your carry on luggage, would this very same post 9-11 security presence allow for these? What about at a train or bus station? And what about the many other *creative* ways of using a Mini Motel? If a homeless person replaced their make-shift tarp canopy with a Mini Motel, would it mean no more rousting by the police at 4 am? Imagine little orange shanty towns popping up in transit stations and on city streets.

Several years ago an artist named Michael Rakowitz wondered what it would mean to create temporary tent shelters for the homeless. He was inspired by the Bedouins, who developed tents that could be easily assembled and that captured the natural ventilation of the desert to keep the interiors cool. He thought about the ventilation of a city like New York, where cold weather was an issue. He developed a concept called the paraSITE, which hooked up to the exhaust vent of a building to inflate itself with the wasted output of heated air. The interior included pockets to hold the person's possessions and, after interviewing several people living on the street, the tent itself went from an opaque black to a translucent plastic so that the inhabitant could see if someone was sneaking up on them.

The paraSITE by Michael Rakowitz

In addition to the air mattress and the alarm clock, the Mini Motel comes with ear plugs and an eye shade to help block out noise and sound. Imagine being ensconced in New York's Penn Station in an opaque orange tent that announces its purpose—sleeping—while you're wearing earplugs and eye covers.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Movie Palaces of Baltimore

The renovated Hippodrome Theatre on Baltimore's West Side.

There's a trend in new movie theater architecture these days: a return to the spirit of the movie palace. Exhibitors like Muvico and Pacific are using the classic theaters of the 1930's as inspiration for their new, multi-screen megaplexes. You can read more about this soon in an article I wrote about movie theater design. It will publish in the March issue of Architect magazine.

So whatever happened to the actual movie palace of the past? Many of them still exist in one form or another here in Baltimore. Baltimore Sun photographer Amy Davis pays tribute to the movie palaces of yore with a photo montage on the Sun website. See series by clicking here. (Thanks for the tip Kerr!)

Sunday, January 27, 2008


The fence on our porch after a recent snowstorm.

This weekend Matt and I went in search of an old piece of fencing. We wanted a specific style of wrought iron, one that was first designed here in Baltimore by G. Krug & Sons, an ironworks factory that has been in operation since 1810. (I've heard that they are one of the oldest continuously running ironworks warehouses in the country. They are, to be sure, one of the few left in active operation here in Baltimore.)

Pieces of this particular fence line our front porch and a small section of our back patio. A neighbor tells me there was once more of it on our property, but that it slowly went missing over the years, probably sold to the exact kind of place that we went to visit on Saturday...a salvage company called Second Chance.

Outside one of the warehouses at Second Chance

Second Chance is a repository for old building materials, antiques, and architectural elements, mostly recovered from deconstructed buildings. The salvage is housed in five massive warehouses along an industrial-looking road near the city's football stadium. They have stained glass and tin ceilings, mantels and flooring. They have piles of doorknobs and rows and rows of old doors. They have shutters and slate roofing and marble slabs, and piles of hinges and hooks and ceramic tiles. They have the kinds of things that were once fabricated in these very warehouses. Now, instead of producing, the buildings house the ghostly remains of industries long gone.

There are parking lots filled with claw foot tubs and old toilets (above).

Some of the remnants are on a massive scale, like the flower-shaped lampposts, pictured below, that once lit Patterson Park, a grand patch of green in the heart to the city. Inside one warehouse is a fully intact, enormous green marble shower from the late 1800's that came out of a summer mansion on the Eastern Shore.

There was a time when Second Chance had bargains. It was the kind of off-the-beaten path place that rewarded the patient person willing to roam its drafty halls and dig through piles of crap to find the diamond in the rough. There were lots of contractors in search of deals and lots of scrappy homeowners determined on a DIY historic rehab of their nearby rowhouse.

Today, it's pricier. There's been press, stories of the treasures that can be unearthed inside. On this particular Saturday there was an older couple debating the purchase of a very expensive marble sink. She wore a full length fur, he wore the kind of thin-rimmed black glasses reserved for architects and curators of contemporary art.

Another family was there on a field trip with their young son, probably about 7. They walked through the warehouse as though it were a museum, commenting on the antique pieces and marveling at what once outfitted a home. Their son chased the resident cat. The mother kept saying, "Isn't this just so cool?" At the register a sign read, "Unattended children will be given free espresso and a new puppy."

An incredibly patient woman listened as we explained our half-baked idea for making a pot rack out of a sliver of this old fencing, how we wanted to affix it to the wood beams in our kitchen with chain and hang S hooks for the pots. She took us outside into the bitterly cold day and walked us through stacks of fencing. I gave up well before she did. Undeterred, she kept at it in the freezing cold and, when we finally admitted defeat, promised to keep an eye out and give us a call if what we wanted came in. I thanked her, but thought that we probably couldn't afford the fence if it could be found. I come less and less to Second Chance these days because it seems too expensive. I longed for the early days when I could find a surprisingly good deal.

We left and headed to our next stop: Home Depot. Walking through the neatly organized aisles, I noted the price differences. It's much, much cheaper to buy a doorstop or doorknob or a door here. As we navigated our way through the Self Check Out line—because they don't actually staff the registers on a Saturday anymore— and as we tried to scan a 12 foot piece of 2X 4, I thought about the woman at Second Chance. I thought about the rising prices there and about the human energy that goes into extracting something from a building in such a way that it can be reused, and so that it doesn't wind up in a landfill. And I thought about what I had once read on their website:

In our throw-away world, buildings are only meant to last for 20 years, shingles are plastic and old-world craftsmanship is nearly impossible to find.

Second Chance gives old buildings new life. We work with local and regional architects, builders and contractors to search out old buildings which are entering the demolition phase.

We rescue the wood, metal, marble, plaster, stone and other architectural elements that make the building special. We give these pieces new lives, in new homes, in new ways, with new uses.

It's a Second Chance.

And I thought that the extra money seemed worth it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

You Are What You Build

I believe that people were born into this world as assets, not liabilities. —Bill Strickland

I once had a conversation with Ed Burns, a writer and producer on The Wire. Ed was a Baltimore City cop for many years until he quit the force to become a city school teacher. Tired of locking up kids, he resolved to be a part of the solution. Ed talked about what he saw in those school buildings. Beyond the graffiti-covered walls and the concrete exterior, through the metal detectors and past the security guards, there was a decaying building of peeling paint, sagging ceilings, empty library shelves, and dank, dark hallways. There was no air conditioning to offset the stagnant heat of Baltimore's famously humid summers and the water fountains—poisoned by lead—were shut down. A few water coolers scattered throughout the building were dry by mid-morning. Is it any wonder that 60% of high school students in Baltimore city public schools drop out?

Last night at the Enoch Pratt Library in downtown Baltimore, Bill Strickland gave a talk in support of his new autobiography
Making the Impossible Possible. Strickland has built a career on the simple idea that people are a function of their environment.

Strickland can pinpoint the moment his life changed, the moment he made this connection between environment and mindset. It was a Wednesday afternoon in 1963 in an inner-city Pittsburgh public school. A teenage Strickland passed the door of an art teacher who was working a lump of clay on a potter's wheel. He was transfixed.

"If ever in life there is a clairvoyant experience, I had one that day," Strickland told a reporter in 1998. "I saw a radiant and hopeful image of how the world ought to be. It opened up a portal for me that suggested that there might be a whole range of possibilities and experiences that I had not explored. It was night and day—literally. I saw a line and I thought: This is dark, and this is light. And I need to go where the light is."

Strickland studied ceramics from that day forward.

Falling Water

This same public school teacher piled Strickland and a group of young black men into a bus and drove them to Western Pennsylvania to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water. Strickland never forgot it.

"I remember how the light felt coming through that house," Strickland said last night. "And I vowed then and there that I would bring some of that light into my neighborhood."

He would go on to found the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center in Pittsburgh. The school is a stunning architectural vision in an urban space. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, attendees are greeted by a massive fountain and a light-filled arts and crafts structure. Inside, the walls are covered with over $100,000 in art and student work is exhibited in a state of the art gallery. A furniture maker who studied under George Nakashima created the furniture. Paul Prudhomme helped design a culinary kitchen and Paul Simon's engineers designed an auditorium where jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Nancy Wilson play and record.

The Music Hall. The Manchester Jazz series attracts the top performers from around the world and sells out its subscription season each year. Four Grammy winning records were recorded here.

In the 23 years that the center has been open, there has never been any theft or graffiti. Strickland fills the building each day with fresh flowers. "I've never figured out the aesthetic purpose of plastic flowers," he said.

Those fresh flowers carry an important message. "It's all in the way that you treat people that defines who they will become," he said. "This is part of the cure for spiritual cancer."

Manchester has a 90% graduation rate and most students go on to attend college.

After hearing a talk about the successes of the school in Pittsburgh, Jeff Skoll, the founder of EBay decided that Strickland was the "EBay of the social side." He believed that his Pittsburgh school was a scalable model that could be replicated in cities across the country and the world. Today, three schools are already up and running in Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, and San Francisco and plans are in the works for many more.

Strickland has earned numerous awards and accolades for his work, including a MacArthur Genius grant. He vows that he will never leave the neighborhood of his youth. "I want to show these kids that you don't have to go anywhere to make a difference," he said. "They are not a stepping stone to something bigger, they are the stone."

You can watch video of Strickland's speech and learn more about his life and his work by clicking here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

White House Redux

What if the White House, the ultimate architectural symbol of political power, were to be designed today?

That's the question that the Storefront for Art and Architecture is asking. They've announced an online design competition called White House Redux, where anyone can submit designs, descriptions, images, or video of a newly conceived presidential home. A jury will select the best concepts to be in a month-long exhibit at the Storefront's gallery in Manhattan this July. The top three will win cash ($5000 for first place).

With the country collectively focusing on cleaning out the White House, and on the idea of change—whatever that may be— it seems an appropriate time to also think about the house itself.

Plan of the City of Washington, c. 1795

The White House was a major feature of Charles L'Enfant's original plan for Washington, D.C. The Frenchman envisioned a massive palace for the president, five times the size of what would ultimately be constructed. George Washington oversaw the design and ended up firing L'Enfant for insubordination. In the early 1800's they launched a design competition for both the White House and the Capitol building. An Irish born architect named James Hoban won the honor of building the first presidential home.

Latrobe's porticoes

In 1817, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who designed the Capitol Building, added to the original White House design. He proposed north and south porticoes, making the White House resemble what it is today.

Latrobe's design of the Basilica

Latrobe was also responsible for designing the first Catholic Basilica up the road in Baltimore. Built from 1806-1821, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary became, according to its founders, "the first great metropolitan Cathedral constructed in America after the adoption of the Constitution...and a symbol of the country's new found religious freedom."

The Basilica recently underwent a massive restoration to return it to the original interior of the 19th century. Walking through the space today, with its great dome, it feels very civic and nothing like the grand religious spaces of cathedrals in say, Europe.
In an election season where the separation of church and state is such a heated debate, it's interesting to note that our first national Catholic church and our capital building were designed by the same man.

The renovated exterior of the Basilica in Baltimore

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Garaicoa's Palimpsests

Carlos Garaicoa

Sometimes strangers seem to live with you, to follow you through their ideas, their art, their writing. You've never met, yet they seem to creep back into your life somehow, and they become familiar old friends.

Five years ago, in an issue of Bomb magazine, I read an article about the work of Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa and I saw images from his exhibition called Now Let's Play to Disappear. The installation, pictured below, stuck with me and over the years, the artist's work seems to crop up in surprising settings.

Ahora juguemos a desaparecer I (Now Let’s Play to Disappear I), 2001, metal table, candles. Installation view, Sonsbeek 9, Arnhem, The Netherlands. Courtesy of the Giuliana and Tomaso Setari Collection, France-Italy.

Garaicoa uses architecture and environment to inform his art, which is a mix of sculpture, installation, photography and digital imagery. His subject is most often Havana. In Now Let's Play to Disappear, he created elaborate cities out of wax and then he lit the wicks so that the cities slowly consumed themselves. He explained it as "a response to the progressive violence that contemporary cities have to endure."

In that article he told the writer:

"I tried to understand architecture as a discipline that has played one of the most important roles in society and that has inflected politically, ideologically and socially all the changes and events that have marked the course of our lifetimes."

He also said that despite his work focusing on Cuban architecture of the last 25 years, he believes that his art has a universal appeal: "The phenomenon of modernity in its incompleteness and the correlating frustration and decay of twentieth-century utopias and social dreams; the rethinking of the urban environment as a necessity for human beings," he said.

In more recent work, Garaicoa walked the streets of Havana and imagined a life for the decaying buildings. He created new visions of the cityscape through sculpture, drawing, and photography:

Walking through the Centre Canadien d'Architecture in Montreal last summer, I again came across Garaicoa's work, this time in a critique written in a publication there. It compared his art to a palimpsest:

"Like a palimpsest, when seen as a whole, Garaicoa's layered and textured practice covers and reveals, erases and builds up, deftly evolving parallel time zones, levels of reality and planes of representation. However, his interests are not nostalgic; rather than recover failed or Utopian projects, he engages with a continual reappraisal of the present."

His new work was exhibited this past fall in New York.
I hoped to go to the city and see the show and, perhaps, finally meet the artist whose work continually crosses my path. But Garaicoa was not there. Under our current administration, he was not allowed a visa into the country.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hidden Economies

We've been hearing lots about the falling dollar. Today I learned that the metal to make pennies and nickels is worth more than the face value of the coinage. I wasn't aware that the U.S. Mint had passed regulations in 2006 making it illegal to melt down pennies and nickels for the metal. The rules also say that you cannot export coins for melting, limiting what you are allowed to ship abroad to $100. Travelers cannot carry more than $5 in 1- and 5-cent coins out of the USA, which makes me think how much I'd love to meet the person trying to run an international penny melting ring. And that I'd hate to be behind them at the metal detector in security.

The HBO series The Wire is two episodes in to its fifth and final season. The character Bubbles is often seen taking metal scraps off the streets of Baltimore to sell them for drugs. He also created his own business—Bubble's Depot—where he sells t-shirts and candy from a shopping cart in the ghetto.

Photo by Paul Schiraldi for HBO

Today on the Marc Steiner Show, a local talk show on the NPR affiliate, they discussed how The Wire is, at its heart, a critique of the impact of capitalism on society. In a post-industrial economy like Baltimore, where so many are left out of legitimate industry, hidden economies thrive—from the drug trade to Bubble's Depot. This character is able to make a living, as it were, outside the confines of "real" work because the neighborhoods he inhabits are so anemic, so destitute, that they lack legitimate commerce. Many of these shrinking communities don't even have a corner store, let alone a grocery store, so people line up to buy what they can from a shopping cart.

There are communities that have developed localized currency, a kind of formalized version of bartering. Friends of mine live in a city neighborhood with lots of families. The parents developed Baby Bucks, which they use to "buy" services like daycare, babysitting, and transporting kids to and from school.

In Anacostia, a lower income neighborhood in D.C, they decided to put a value on the hidden economy and support each other through the creation of Anacostia Hours. Services rendered, like carpentry or writing, baking or gardening, can be "purchased" using these Anacostia dollars. On the face of the currency is a picture of Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great voice in the American abolitionist movement. (Douglass made his home in Anacostia and lived there until he died.) Douglass once wrote that “a man's character always takes its hue, more or less, from the form and color of things about him.” There's a clever joke in there somewhere about the color of money...

Saturday, January 12, 2008


An image of a work created in nature by artist Andy Goldsworthy. It's simply leaves surrounding a hole, but the effect is stunning.

Reading the Pigtown*Design blog this morning and there's a post about the World Beach Project. It encourages people to create a design on the beach and to upload images of their work to the website. The aim is to encourage man to leave his creative mark upon the earth.

It got me thinking about the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy. He is an environmental artist, creating earthworks and installations, mostly around his farm in Scotland. Some works are ephemeral, like the one created above. As soon as a stiff wind blows, the leaves are gone.

Others are more enduring sculptures, like the stone wall that he created over a two-year period for the Storm King Art Center in New York. It's 2,278 feet long and winds among the trees.

There are several stone walls near my home in Baltimore that are similar to the ones that Goldsworthy built. Some of them date back to about 1840. Others have been created more recently by homeowners looking to emulate the stonework of those mill workers who settled this area 200 years ago and built their homes and fences out of ballast rock carried in ships from England.

There is something about a stone wall that people are drawn to. The walls that crisscross the New England countryside are actually disappearing, the victim of theft or of landowners selling the coveted rocks to others for decorative purposes.

In Ireland, on the island of Inishmore in the Bay of Galway, the landscape is like one giant Earthwork created over hundreds of years by the farming families who inhabit the place. They used stonewalls to distinguish property lines, and over time, as plots were divided among children, the island became a patchwork quilt of green pasture and gray rock. Here are pictures I took on the island in 2001.

Above: The coastline of Inishmore. In the far distance you can see the remnants of a stone wall built hundreds of years ago when a fort existed on high ground to keep a watch on the waters and to protect the Aran Islands from potential invaders.

Below: Farmland on the East side of the island. Keep an eye on the horse...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Endangered Language

A still from last year's documentary Helvetica, about the 50th anniversary of that typeface. This ubiquitous font is most definitely NOT an endangered species.

In my last post I wrote about the depression and the loss that can effect someone when their landscape is dramatically altered. I focused on the physical aspects of community and culture—like buildings and environment. This got me thinking about the other components of a person's culture, the less concrete elements that make a place feel distinctive.

UNESCO (United Nation's Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization) tracks endangered places around the globe. Their World Heritage Site designation is one of the most valuable preservation tools for the built environment. UNESCO also tracks what they call "intangible cultural heritage" and in 2009 they plan to issue a "List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."

One of the things they track is language. Over 50% of the world's 6000 languages are endangered. One language, on average, disappears every two weeks.

Why is this important? Because, as their website explains, "languages are vehicles of value systems and of cultural expressions and they constitute a determining factor in the identity of groups and individuals."

Here's another interesting fact: 90% of the world's languages are not represented on the Internet. So this thing that you are using right now, and that is so often touted for connecting our world, is also threatening, through its exclusion, the life of certain languages and the cultures they represent.

There was a lawsuit back in the '90's, filed by the National Federation for the Blind against AOL. The suit alleged discrimination because AOL's proprietary software did not work with the software used by the blind to read and vocalize websites. Because AOL was an industry leader, the suit was filed under the guidelines of the American's With Disabilities Act. The Internet was not accessible to a large populace of people who had a right to be a part of this new and growing form of community. They won and AOL had to re-engineer its software.

The battle for a language, in general, is less clear cut. There is no law being broken. It is simply another one of the unintended impacts of globalization. Just as companies merge and become monopolies, so, too, can cultures.

Someone once told me that to be truly fluent in a foreign language, you must be able to tell a joke and get a native speaker to laugh. What they were saying, really, is that to understand another person, we must be able to value his culture enough to understand nuance and nothing is more nuanced than humor. Just as losing indigenous plant life to global warming or historic buildings to the wrecking ball blunts our physical landscape, losing so much language means forfeiting a beautiful nuance to our world.