Sunday, November 23, 2008

Design Conversation # 4: Vacant Baltimore


Wednesday, December 3, 2008
@ Windup Space, 12 North Avenue
a/v system with laptop computer and projector will be available

This Month's Theme: Vacant Baltimore
Join us for an open discussion on design ideas for creative reuse of abandoned buildings and vacant lots in Baltimore (arguably the city’s largest natural resource).

We will project slides of vacant sites in Baltimore and open up the floor to conversation. Paper and pens will be provided for drawn or written suggestions. Everyone is invited to bring digital images of Baltimore's vacant sites for consideration. Practical, purely theoretical, and preposterous ideas are encouraged. All are welcome!

There will also be some short presentations.

For more information contact Gary Kachadourian:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Design for the Greater Good"

Project M Lab, Greensboro, Alabama.

I've been in Hale County, Alabama since Tuesday, home to Sam Mockbee's Rural Studio. I came down here with Piece Studio, a Baltimore-based graphic design firm focused on socially responsible projects. This summer, Piece won a Sappi grant to help a local non-profit in Greensboro called HERO. I think the best introduction to HERO is this You Tube video. Pam Dorr is the executive director and in five years she and her team have built nearly 90 new homes here.

The principals of Piece, Mike and Bernard, also teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art and they've brought 5 young graphic designers with them. The team is working through a creative incubator known as Project M Lab. It was developed by John Bielenberg, and it's kind of like the graphic design equivalent of the Rural Studio, in that designers immerse themselves in the community and develop ideas that can help the area. John says the goal behind Project M is "design thinking for the greater good." He set up a lab down here where designers can work and develop these ideas. I'll be writing more about John and Project M Lab soon...

Greensboro is the home of Project M lab and HERO and it's a curious town. Population 3,200. The Main Street looks like a preserved movie set, a Potemkin City. The facades along the street are in tact, but most of the storefronts are empty. They have no business. The owners have filled the windows with curtains and mannequins to make it look like there is still activity.

Many of the storefronts have hand-painted signs in this cursive font.

Behind the store fronts:

The building is literally crumbling.

Here is the Bunk House where I am staying with the designers. It was renovated by HERO. People stay here during their time at Project M. It's not heated and it hit 28 degrees the other night. We are all sleeping in bunk beds in the same room. It makes for quick bonding.

John took us on a tour through Hale to see Rural Studio Projects:

A new Boys & Girls Club.

Chapel made out of windshields.

Smoke House in Ward's Bend using glass bottles and street signs.

The street signs composing the roof.

The group walking through Ward's Bend.

A new dog shelter that used a unique construction method called lamella.

The core inside houses the program: small interior office space, cat crates, and stalls for dogs.

Inside the shelter. You can see the intricate lamella truss overhead. This is wrapped in a steel skin.

Close up on the truss. The students had to figure out this fabrication process and execute it.

An exterior shot of the crates for stray cats.

Inside the Rammed Earth house with posters by Amos Kennedy.

Another Kennedy print.

And some general shots from around town:


Inside the Greensboro Flea Market.

The group hard at work inside the Project M Lab.

Monday, November 17, 2008

And the winner is...

The winning design concept.

he University of Baltimore selected a winner tonight in the international competition to design their new Law Center. This is a prominent site located on the corner of Mount Royal Avenue and Charles Street, adjacent to Penn Station. Jurors picked Germany's Behnisch Architekten, who will work in partnership with Baltimore’s Ayers/Saint/Gross. The team beat out a number of excellent competitors: Foster + Partners of London in association with Cho Benn Holback + Associates; Dominique Perrault Architecture of Paris in association with Ziger/Snead Architects; Moshe Safdie and Associates in association with Hord/Coplan/Macht; and SmithGroup Companies, Inc. of Washington, D.C.

My fellow jurors...

Meanwhile, I joined another jury to review the 79 entries for the Station North Bike Rack Competition. News of the winners on that competition soon, in the meantime, here are some snapshots from a few of the boards...

Profile: Porochista Khakpour

Photo by Christine Taylor from the JHU article.

ot all of my writing assignments have to do with design. Here is a link to a feature of mine that just came out in the November issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine about novelist (and JHU alum) Porochista Khakpour.

OK, there are a few passages that delve a bit into cities. Khakpour wrote the novel after 9/11. (Xerxes is one of the key characters in her book, Sons and Other Flammable Objects):

"Khakpour writes vividly about the aftermath of 9/11—not the well-traveled text of politics, loss, war, and Iraq—but the more insidious, psychological impact of that day, the anxiety that heightens 'when the news had some new tidbit to dash like extra oil onto an already burning skillet.' A description of Xerxes getting trapped in a stalled and crowded subway car reveals the muffled, interior turmoil unique to this particular time in an American city, that great backdrop to the private panic attack. 'Eventually it got moving again and once out and back up and in the New York air, Xerxes, like a spring, bounced back into form—that was what New York did to you, you were Gumby, you were superhuman, you could forgive and forget, because if you could take it there, you could take it anywhere—and like the rest of the residents of the island, he forgot moments like those enough to take it from day to day.'"

And then later in the piece, more on the anxiety of the American city during the post-9/11 Bush-era :

"Sons is, at its core, the story of the elusive American dream, a story as familiar and symbolic as that green light at the end of Daisy's dock. Whereas Jay Gatsby was in search of status in the roaring '20s, Xerxes, it could be said, is in search of stability, that all-too-slippery quality in this shifting American reality, a quality that seemed particularly out of reach in a place like New York at the dawn of the new millennium and continues to haunt the country today. Xerxes wonders if he is having some kind of a breakdown, and his personal anxiety speaks to the larger anxiety of the time. There was the crashing, literal and terrifying, followed by a slow-moving domino effect of other crashes: war, housing markets, financial sectors, international repute. The fissures of this Iranian-American family, extrapolated, represent the fissures within American culture itself. The story reflects the desire to seek and inhabit a place we consider home in this widening global community, and the fear of threats coming to our door."

I wrote this piece earlier in the fall, and it is incredible to re-read it now in the days following the election. During my interview, Porochista and I talked a lot about politics. She was campaigning for Obama in Pennsylvania and she pointed out that the bulk of her twenties were given over to the anxiety of the Bush years. I began to fully recognize how numb we'd all been, how impotent we all felt. 8 years. Gone. It was a long haul. And now we can begin the process of—as Obama said last night on 60 Minutes—"regain[ing] America's moral stature in the world."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Toward a New Curriculum

One of the goals of the Re-imagining Cities conference that I attended was to develop a new curriculum for urban design education moving forward. My morning post on Metropolis magazine goes into more depth on the topic...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil

At the conference (from left to right): Lance Hosey of William McDonough + Partners, Andrew Blum, of Wired, Ryan Avent of Grist, Lloud Alter of Treehugger, and Alex Steffen of Worldchanging.

I spent several days this weekend live blogging at the Re-imagining Cities Conference with a team of exceptional reporters. You can read all of our posts by clicking here.

I also posted to the Metropolis magazine Web site, and this morning's piece is about the political will needed to restructure urban design.

There was a lot of information exchanged over three days, and I plan on reporting more in the coming weeks about what I heard. The Rockefeller Foundation and the Penn Center on Urban Design, sponsors of this conference, also say that they plan to release a book of findings from the event in the future.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The American Brand (TM)

Screen shot: trademarking shipping containers as building units.

I'm recovering from several days of live blogging and conference presentations by drinking too much coffee and watching the first of Obama's transition team make their rounds on the Sunday morning news shows. Chris Matthews just asked: "Can Barack Obama restore the American Brand?"

We've been hearing this a lot lately, the idea of America as a brand (google the phrase and see what pops up). Ellen McGirt wrote a piece recently for Fast Company titled "The Brand Called Obama."

It's a telling word, one that I would argue got us into this mess in the first place. We've somehow conflated capitalism with democracy in this country, but as the recent economic meltdown shows, unmitigated consumption fails.

We were founded on the idea of the social contract, the belief that we give up some rights as a people to afford our broader rights. Rousseau wrote in the late 1700's: "The heart of the idea of the social contract may be stated simply: Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole."

It is a belief that an investment in public education, for example, is a worthy endeavor because it supports the greater whole.

I had a conversation with a group of journalists at the Re-imagining Cities conference this weekend and the topic of branding and ownership came up. Now that the green movement has become prevalent in the marketplace, there is a desire to brand and commoditize it. You are suddenly seeing the trademark symbol pop up. I was told that a company in Europe is actually trying to TM the phrase "Sustainable City" (good luck).

This presents a crises of conscience in the sustainability movement. How do you take an altruistic endeavor—building a more just, equitable, and safe world—and make a living off of it as well? It's the same challenge we've faced since the founding of this country: how do you espouse a nation structured on both private ownership and the social contract? How do you encourage individuality—the fend-for-yourself, Darwinist ideal of the American Dream—while also encouraging a commitment to community?

I'm hopeful that this week's election is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Stay Tuned...

Starting tonight, I'll be posting blogs from the Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil conference in Philadelphia. You can follow my posts on the Web site of The Next American City magazine as well as on the P/O/V blog at Metropolis magazine.

Cultural Containers

Baltimore's Round Robin Tour earns approval from New York magazine.

Last night, a group gathered for the third in a series of monthly design conversations in Baltimore. The topic for the evening was "cultural containers" and several speakers spoke about ways to engage city spaces through art and architecture. One of the topics was the recent Baltimore Round Robin tour, which included several bands and performers from Baltimore going on the road around the country (their show earned them a slot in New York magazine's coveted Approval Matrix).

Nancy Haragan of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance was there and we spoke about the new Baker Artist Awards. Artists are able to nominate themselves for this new annual award, which includes the Mary Sawyers Baker Prize, a juried award, and the Baltimore's Choice prize, which will be decided by those of us voting for the artists on the Web site.

What's so exceptional about this, is that anyone can self nominate and you are not limited to specific mediums. Artists of all stripes are able to submit by uploading images of their work to the Web site. The juried award is going to be somewhere in the $20,000 range, and as many as three artists could earn this significant prize. The Baltimore's Choice winners will get up to $5,000.

The site itself is remarkable for the fact that it has become a virtual gallery of work from area artists. You can browse through hundreds of entries and see an incredible wealth of new work in the city. Organizers have also invited local curators to create their own online exhibition galleries, so people like Darsie Alexander of the Baltimore Museum of Art (soon to be with the Walker Center), Ellen Lupton of MICA, and Jed Dietz of the Maryland Film Festival will be culling images and picking their favorites.

I browsed through some of the entries this morning and a photo series by Joseph Letourneau caught my eye. Called Last Supper, the artist took a series photographs of "my dinner lovingly prepared on a mousetrap every night for a month," he writes.

Penne Bolognese with garlic bread from the Last Supper Series by Joseph Letourneau.

Nancy tells me that there will be a virtual press event about the Baker Awards on their Web site on November 18. Be sure to post your work and to visit the site often.