Friday, October 31, 2008

One Week. Three Events.

Next week promises to be an interesting one (besides the obvious. Vote!) Here are the highlights:

On Wednesday, the monthly design conversation in Baltimore comes to the Wind Up Space. We're working out ways to record these conversations, so if you can't make it in person, you will be able to follow what was discussed and to contribute to the dialogue (stay tuned for a functioning Web site soon...)

On Thursday, I head to Philly to join a team of bloggers covering a symposium titled Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil. The symposium is sponsored by Penn State, The Rockefeller Foundation, and The Next American City magazine. It will, according to the organizers, "address the role of urban design in the face of one of the most profound and important challenges facing global society: the need to re-imagine and rethink how cities are designed and organized in a future without the plentiful and abundant oil upon which prosperous urban economies have been built."

The line up is incredible and includes Elizabeth Kolbert of the The New Yorker, author and professor David Orr, Lance Hosey of William McDonough + Partners, and Stephen Kieran from KieranTimberlake Associates. There will be planners and designers from all over the world participating in plenary sessions. By the end, participants and speakers will work towards drafting a manifesto for urban planning in an age after oil. The event is sold out, but you will be able to follow everything live online at The Next American City, as well as on the sites of all of the participating bloggers (see what Treehugger had to say about this):

Lloyd Alter, Treehugger
Ryan Avent, Grist
Nate Berg, Planetizen
Andrew Blum, Wired
Randy Crane, Urban Planning Research
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson Metropolis Magazine
Diana Lind, Next American City

When I return on Saturday, November 8, I will be joining a talented team of architects and designers to present a really compelling idea for green building in Baltimore at the Baltimore Bioneers Conference. We've been meeting in the wee small hours of the morning before work to develop this concept, and I am very excited about the direction. Our session is at 4:15 and is titled "Visionary Green Design and Development." For more information, click here. You should come and be a part of the planning for this breakthrough design idea.

Then, on Sunday, November 9th, I'll be napping.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Urban Interactions on YouTube

What a month it's been—from my first-ever PowerPoint presentation to my first video going up on YouTube. Click here to read more about it and to see the video...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

100th Anniversary of the Sears Modern Home

My latest post on the Metropolis Web site is about the 100th anniversary of the Sears Modern Home and the challenges to contemporary prefab. You can link to it by clicking here.

And a reminder that tomorrow night at the Maryland Institute College of Art, you can meet Metropolis editor-in-chief Susan Szenasy and see her latest documentary on design innovation, called Brilliant Simplicity. The event is FREE! Click here for more details.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Archinect Op-Ed

Fred Scharmen, architect, blogger of sevensixfive, and a Baltimore Design Conversation co-conspirator, has written another excellent piece for Archinect. Check out his op-ed titled Let's Get Small by clicking here.

And if you're in the op-ed kind of mood, visit the San Francisco Chronicle for this tirade against asphalt and the car. A small highlight:

"We make these sacrifices to accommodate a machine that, despite having been civilized a bit by electronics, essentially remains an early 20th century-style, oil-burning, exhaust-spewing contraption. The legacy of this long reign is an utterly car-centered environment of huge, signal-clogged boulevards and buildings adrift in vast oceans of parking."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Every 7th

Nothing says rock-n-roll like losing a tooth. Last night I saw The Oranges Band open up for The Rosebuds at the Black Cat in D.C. Roman Kuebler, fearless frontman of The Oranges Band, cracked a tooth in half on the microphone and went on to play a full set. A rocking set at that.

In June, Roman launched a new endeavor, called It's brilliant in its simplicity: think of it as buying a record on installment. For $1 a month subscription, you get two new songs from Roman, as well as liner notes and original artwork (this month, the art was done by Alex Fine). It is, essentially, a new distribution model for local musicians to reach broader audiences.

Click on the month of June, and you get access to one free month so you can see what to expect. Sign up and help Roman buy a new tooth.

Roman in the halcyon days when he had a full head of teeth. From the launch of in June.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Design Conversation: Cultural Containers

(Click on the invite above for a larger version)

The next Design Conversation in Baltimore will be held on Wednesday, November 5 at the Wind Up Space. This month the conversation is being curated by Eric Leshinsky and the theme is "Cultural Containers," which Eric says can be interpreted as "any means of framing cultural activity: institutions, buildings, communities, programs, sites, spaces, or otherwise."

If you have a topic relating to cultural containers and would like to share it with the group, come prepared to give a 5 minute presentation. A laptop, projector, and AV are available. Or, just come and listen to new ideas and mingle over cocktails.

Eric has already lined up some folks to present design ideas, listed below, and encourages anyone interested in participating to contact him at:

Confirmed speakers so far:

Gary Kachadourian (Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts)
Michael Benevento (Current Gallery)
Lisa Reed (Cho Benn Holback + Associates Architects)
Justin Blemley (

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Public Service Announcement: Zoning

I like this image from the Baltimore Housing Web site page about zoning. Those papers are looking a little dogeared..

Oh my god! Zoning! How incredibly exciting!!! Note all the exclamation marks making my point!!!

OK. Not the sexiest of topics, but for those of us in Baltimore, an important one. The city is embarking on writing new zoning codes for the city that will determine land use and design moving forward. This hasn't been done since the early 1970s. It will impact how we build, use our land, and activate the city through things like entertainment, restaurants, bike lanes, etc.

There are a series of public meetings over the coming weeks. So anyone who wonders why corner stores or sidewalk cafes aren't allowed in their neighborhood (mixed use!) or who wants to advocate for artists housing with studios in them (more mixed use!), or who can't understand why their mostly residential neighborhood is still zoned industrial (that's me!), now is your chance to voice your needs and to better understand why things work the way they work here. The topics of public health and sustainability are on the list of things to be discussed.

Tapas Teatro on Charles Street. Photo from the Baltimore Sun.

One of the things I would love to see is more active streetlife, and I'm curious to know how we decide when and where restaurants and shops are allowed to activate the sidewalk.

Here is a link to the city planning Web site offering more information on the plan. The email I received did not have exact times for all of the meetings, so those sites should tell you the latest. There's a even a meeting today...

Industrial Issues
Oct 22nd 4-6pm
Museum of Industry

Includes Zoning issues for industrial areas including waterfront areas, business industrial parks, and buffers around industrial areas.

Waterfront Issues

Oct. 27th , 5-7pm, at the Dept of Planning 417 E. Fayette Street
Nov 10, 6-8pm , at the Waterfront Partnership offices, President Street Station

This group will identify some of the unique issues to non-industrial waterfront property.

Arts and Entertainment
October 28th, Dept. of Planning, 417 E. Fayette 8th floor
November 12th, 6-8pm, Curran Room 4th flr. City Hall

This group will discuss zoning concerns for the arts communities as well as discuss live entertainment.

Downtown Issues
Nov 5th afternoon, Downtown Partnership 217 N. Charles

This group will discuss concerns of downtown property owners, residents and others.

Public Health Issues
Nov 13th, 6-8pm, Orleans Street library

JHU and Baltimore City Health Dept have lead an effort to develop how Public Health should be considered in Zoning.

Working group Wrap-up and presentation of Sustainability planning
November 17th, 6-8 pm, Baltimore Polytechnic HS

This meeting will be in open house format and give everyone the opportunity to see all the results of the working groups and add comments or suggestions. We will summarize the ideas from the Sustainability planning and how they might be incorporated in the new Zoning code.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Designer as Activist

Conference co-chair Ellen Lupton.

A new post of mine went up on the Metropolis Web site today. It talks about the graphic design conference I attended at MICA this weekend and explores the idea of the designer as activist/conduit for the community.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Playing in Traffic

Red Whistper Bench #9. Powder coated steel. Jim Galluci, Greensboro, NC.

I've spent part of the weekend at the Maryland Institute College of Art attending a conference called Social Studies: Educating Designers in a Connected World (more on this tomorrow) and I found myself wandering through a median strip. There is an installation called Outdoor Lounge with several individual works composed of structures, chairs, and tables. I failed rule #1 of magazine layouts: I didn't take the establishing shot. So imagine a wide grassy median about the size of 1.5 car lanes sitting in the middle of four lanes of parking and traffic. The median sits on Mount Royal Avenue, the busy road that bifurcates the college.

I'm intrigued by underutilized spaces being activated, as my post about Urban Interactions attests. This median strip is a great example. How many pedestrians would ever pause here? I've walked past it and over it a hundred times, but I've certainly never hung out here. It's actually quite lovely, with landscaped gardens and trees for shade. Somehow it's off limits, though, to anyone other than a passerby rushing from one side of the street to another. Perhaps it's the vehicular island effect: it's kind of difficult to shut out the persistent noise and energy of the cars on either side of you. And people stare at you, which isn't the best way to ease into a relaxing experience, even though urban parks are oftentimes as much about being seen as passive activities, like reading. But when you are being gawked at through a car window, it makes you feel like a rare species in the zoo, which, come to think of it, is an apt analogy for the pedestrian in Baltimore. A very rare species indeed.

There are installations where you are instructed to Sit, Eat, and Chat:

Evidence of eating...

There are lounge chairs made out of plastic barrels:

Another lounge fabricated from concrete, and mutilated chairs and tables:

(This one made me think of Peter Eisenman's cracking concrete pillars at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.)

The exhibit was bookended by two structures. This one—a front and back porch with only the one-dimensional idea of a house in between—has clearly seen activity. There is graffiti and old newspapers, tons of beer cans, and a well used grill.

A structure on the opposite end of the median called Temporary Public Library fared much better. Fabricated by Mexican artist Ivan Hernandez Quintela out of wood, chain link fence, and plastic, there is but one lone beer bottle sitting on a shelf and the only graffiti is sanctioned. Maybe it feels more like an exhibit and therefor did not attract as much activity and vandalism? (Or maybe Baltimore's old slogan "The City That Reads," is true and there really is some respect for the written word.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ignite Baltimore

Last night the first-ever Ignite Baltimore event went down at the Wind Up Space in the Station North neighborhood. 16 speakers had 5 minutes and 20 slides (advancing every 15 seconds) to teach the room about something or to share a compelling story. The place was packed and it was, hands down, one of the best events I've been to in Baltimore—and I'm not just saying that because I was one of the speakers. The energy and excitement from the room, generated by the organizers, made for a sociable, fun, and highly engaging evening. There will be a video at some point that I can link to, but until then, I'll leave you with the images and text from my presentation. And I encourage those of you who didn't make it this go round, to mark your calendars for the next one: February 5. For my readers who don't live in Baltimore, you should see if there is an Ignite night in your city. If not, consider starting one yourself...

How to Start a Revolution: Urban Interactions in the New American City

The American city is changing rapidly, yet planning and land use ideas are not keeping pace with our emerging urban landscape. Old models are not meeting our new needs.

Baltimore is among the many cities to have lost a significant percentage of its residents. We have nearly 400,000 fewer people here today than in 1950. This population loss coupled with the shift from an industrial, port-centric economy, has changed the geography of our city. We have an epidemic of vacant houses, underutilized properties, abandoned sites, and missing teeth in blocks of row houses.

What do we want the future Baltimore to look like? How can we, as citizens, begin to interact with this new geography and advocate for what we need, whether it’s more public space, better sidewalks and bike lanes, more access to the waterfront, or ways to use all these vacant lots?

There is an emerging trend in this county that I’ve dubbed Urban Interaction. Citizens are taking to the streets in creative ways to question policies and impact change. Here are a few examples from around the country and we’ll start in Detroit.

In Detroit, a city that has lost 50% of it’s population, an anonymous group calling itself Object Orange wanted to start a dialogue about the more than 7,000 abandoned buildings in the city, so they went out in the wee small hours of the morning and began painting abandoned, city-owned houses bright orange.

The effect was striking. The story gained national media attention, but more importantly, it helped spur city planning agencies to address the dilapidated buildings that they owned.

In downtown San Francisco, more than 70% of outdoor space is dedicated to the private vehicle, while only a fraction of that space is allocated to the public realm. A group of architects, designers, and artists known as REBAR created an intervention called PARK(ing) Day. They paid a meter for its two-hour limit, effectively leasing the land from the city in return for their quarters. They trucked in sod and benches and trees in planters and they turned the parking spot into an actual park that people could use. Passersby had the opportunity to feed the meter to continue access to the park.

The Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit, is now underwriting country-wide observance of Park(ing) day. The event was just held in September and over 80 cities from Anchorage to West Palm Beach participated.

How public is our public space? In the American city we often have areas that are technically public, but feel less than inviting. Maybe it’s because of private management, rent-a-cops, surveillance, bad design, or a simple lack of use. Imagine, for example, what the cops would do if you used the public space around the Inner Harbor for your morning yoga?
Permanent Breakfast is a way to test the validity of public spaces. One person invites others to join them for an outdoor breakfast in an underutilized spot. It provokes people to use places considered off limits and to ask “Why don't we come here?”

Permanent breakfast reinvigorates our relationship with common areas by bringing the private ritual of breakfast into the public arena. It reminds us that cities are places of interaction and for that reason, one or more seats is always left open for a passerby.
A group calling themselves COMMONspace asks the question: What happens when we start to lose true public space? How does that impact the messy vitality of an urban experience?

A common practice in cities is to create hybrid forms of common areas, often called privately owned public spaces. They can take the form of lobbies, atriums, outdoor courtyards, and promenades. COMMONSpace holds public events in these spaces to push the limits and see how public they really are.

This one is called a Nappening. They’ve also hosted yoga classes, read-ins, and headstand and hula hoop competitions. In one case, a rent-a-cop tried to kick them out and the real police were called in. The police were forced to admit that the space in question was, in fact, public, and the peaceful performance was allowed to continue.

Speaking of public space, what about public food? A group called Fallen Fruit believes we should be able to shop the city. They mapped all of the free fruit available in Los Angeles and began advocating for more public fruit parks. It’s a reminder that many pre-industrial societies supported common areas for grazing animals, communal farming, and fishing.

Guerilla Gardening is happening in many cities. You find a blighted spot, go out at night with native species, and you plant. Here are some before and after shots of a median strip.
This raises the broader idea of reintroducing farms into our urban centers. What if some of that vacant land in Baltimore is used for largescale farming?

The group Pop up City in Cleveland hosts spontaneous installations in vacant lots throughout the city. They create temporary dog parks, markets, and events in places that would never normally see foot traffic. This one is called the Bizarre Baazar.

Now it’s your turn. What do you want to do? Anyone interested in staging an urban interaction in Baltimore should contact me. And anyone interested in talking more about design should joins us here at the Wind Up Space on the first Wednesday of every month for the Baltimore Design Conversation.

UPDATE: See what the Baltimore Examiner had to say about Ignite #1.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How to Start a Revolution

What is a Nappening? Come to the Wind Up Space in Baltimore tomorrow night to find out.

Tomorrow night I will join 16 other speakers for the first ever Ignite Baltimore. The event is based on the pecha kucha concept: Each speaker gets five minutes and 20 slides that advance every 15 seconds. The line up of speakers is diverse—from radio hosts to reverends and tech entrepreneurs—so it promises to be an interesting evening. It's free, but you do need to RSVP (use Ignite link above).

My topic is: How to Start a Revolution: Urban Interactions in the New American City. Here's how I describe it:

Baltimore is a shrinking, post-industrial town. The urban planning challenges we face today are different than anytime in our history and require a new approach to architecture, design, and community building. My five minutes will provide a whirlwind tour of designers and citizens transforming cities across the country through individual and collective actions, most outside the official system of the city (think: yoga in a bank lobby, breakfast on a median strip, turning a parking spot into an actual park).

My hope is that this five minute talk will spark some people in the audience to take to the streets and create their own urban interactions.

For those of you not in Baltimore, I plan on posting the talk with images and links on the blog Friday morning. I also think the whole thing might get recorded. If so, I'll provide a link to audio/video.

UPDATE: The show will be broadcast live via Web radio. Click Here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Moonlight as Street Light

The moon last night.

I'm always interested in how buildings adapt over time. I like peeling back the layers to look for telltale signs of past lives and to attempt to decipher what elements were added over the years. It occurred to me recently that my home was likely lit by oil lamps. Built for mill workers in the 1840s, it was heated via three fireplaces and definitely was not on the gas grid for gas lamps. I can't say when electricity was introduced into the home, but I can say it was before modern codes for safety. The house had been in the same family for much of the last century and the fuse box and wiring had to be replaced when I took ownership.

The moon was nearly full last night as I drove home and the sky clear. I was struck by the light that it emitted onto my street and this sparked another thought: for much of my home's existence, the moon was the only nightlight. Streetlamps were probably not added to this particular area until the middle of the last century at the earliest. Last night the moon was actually brighter than the streetlamps.

There is a design collaborative called Civil Twilight that looks at the history of lighting the city. Cities were originally lit by the moon or gas lamps before electric lamps became the norm. An interesting fact that they uncovered is that in the early days of the electrical grid in our country, we were generating too much energy and it needed to be burned off at night, thus prompting the vast expansion of streetlights. So our streetlight grid is in fact designed to waste energy."Civil twilight" is an astronomical and legal term for the period of general visibility following sunset and preceding sunrise and the team wondered if it would be possible to reintroduce natural light to the cityscape in an effort to minimize energy output. They've developed a prototype for a lunar-resonant streetlight that saves energy, mitigates light pollution, and works with the light of the moon. When the moon is full, the light dims. When the moon is waning, the street light powers up.

In describing their collaborative design process, they said that they were driven by the idea of "brilliant simplicity."

"We believe that insight comes from finding unseen connections, and that interdisciplinary collaboration is the best way to give them form," they write on their Web site.

Brilliant Simplicity became the title for a new documentary from Metropolis magazine, which I've mentioned on this blog. Civil Twilight is one of several design teams interviewed about their research process and their resultant breakthroughs. There are some fascinating projects highlighted in this short film, from next generation solar and biomimicry, to the duo who created the Big Dig House. For more details on the October 29th screening of Brilliant Simplicity in Baltimore, click here.

The Big Dig House was created by Single Speed Design and constructed with over 600,000 pounds of materials recycled from Boston's Big Dig.