Monday, December 22, 2008

Stefan Behnisch in Baltimore

Rendering of the proposed law school in Baltimore by Behnisch.

This time last month, the University of Baltimore was announcing that Germany's Behnisch Architekten would design their new $107 million law school on the corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal near Baltimore's Penn Station. This month, writer Stephen Zacks profiles Behnisch in the December issue of Metropolis magazine. It gives a nice perspective on the architect's projects and his take on sustainable design, including the flaws of LEED:

"Behnisch has criticized the U.S. Green Building Council’s method of calculating environmental quality using point values that have no relation to energy consumption. German codes are performance based, specifying minimum thermal conservation and maximum energy use depending on the building type, with formulas for calculating solar gains, ventilation, heating, air-conditioning, hot water, and built-in lighting systems."

(This is something that I have always questioned: how we can we build effectively when the built environment profession in the United States is not encouraged to do post-occupancy studies? We have no true sense of how "green" buildings in the U.S. function.)

Be sure to click on the photos at the right of the article to see a gallery of projects, like this bank building below. I love the angle of the glass wall and the way the steps in the background rise up from another angular floor plane...

Landesgirokasse Bank Administration; Stuttgart, Germany, 1997.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Greatest Gift of All

People who know me well understand that I process the world through my stomach. I love food. (One of my wedding gifts was a subscription to the Cheese of the Month club from New York's Murray's Cheese Shop).

The holidays are the best because most of my friends give great gifts of food in amazing packages. Last year, my friend Nancy gifted nuts seasoned with a homemade mix of honey and spices contained in a glass jar from Wecks. This year she gave paper thin ginger cookies with a wedge of stilton along with a beautiful letterpress card.

I happen to be writing an article for Architect magazine about a project in Ecuador involving fair-trade production practices, and I just got the greatest piece of research material in the mail: chocolate. It's produced through Kallari Association, a self-governed collective of Amazon artists and organic cocoa producers. The packaging is amazing. Heavy stock with a wonderful font and illustration. On each bar there is a line drawing of one of the ingredients and the name of the person who inspired it:

(I've been forewarned that the aji chili in this one is really hot)

The back of the package provides basic nutritional info, but also a brief story behind the name. I love the little perforated corner: Open Here.

The drawings remind me a bit of the illustrations used for the magazine Cook's Illustrated:

It occurs to me that my visceral reaction to this package has as much to do with the design and the thing it contains (CHOCOLATE), as the message that is being communicated. The package honors the natural elements that go into the food, it tells the story of the people who made it happen. And it celebrates the fact that it's real food.

It's very different from the food labeling that occurs today, particularly in the U.S. Let's contrast the Kallari chocolate with another food package I have on my desk right now: almonds.

I'm apparently lowering my risk of heart disease while being encouraged to employ some kind of math equation to assess my net carbs. The simple task of enjoying an almond becomes a complex question of nutrition, scientific research, and targeted dietary results.

I'll defer to Michael Pollan who says it best in his latest book In Defense of Food.

Food. There's plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it?

Because most of what we're consuming today is not food, and how we're consuming it—in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone—is not really eating. Instead of food, we're consuming "edible foodlike substances" —no longer the products of nature but of food science.

Many of them come packaged with health claims that should be our first clue they are anything but healthy. In the so-called Western diet, food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion. The result is the American paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Virtual Mood Board

Mood Board, December 15, 2008.

I took an interior architecture class years ago and learned that I am terrible at figuring out scale drawings, generating floorplans, and well, just about anything having to do with the real world practice of architecture. One thing that I did take away from the course was an affinity for mood boards, those creative collages and catch-alls that can help inspire a design solution (or in my case, an editorial solution). I began keeping one in earnest when I started editing a magazine in 2004 and I continue the tradition now that I am a freelance journalist in my own office space. (I created a design book at home as well when I began renovations four years ago; it's a growing hodgepodge of disparate notes, sketches, and clippings).

Above is a shot of my office mood board from today. It includes, among other things, wallpaper samples from Ferm Living, postcards from Ink & Wit, a ribbon from Volksboutique, a rendering of a building I'm writing about for Architect, and the schedule of public programs for the National Building Museum in D.C.

Now I've started developing a kind of virtual mood board. It began when my father, a history professor, invited me to give a presentation to his class. He's teaching the intellectual history of Baltimore architecture and it's a wonderful mash up of design and social studies. In the course of preparing my talk, I decided to create a powerpoint of images that make me happy. I thought it would be a valuable tool for introducing the idea of psychology of space. I often quote writer Alain deBotton here: "Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places—and on the conviction that it is architecture's task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be."

For me, "architecture" is all things designed, from t-shirts to skyscrapers.

Here are some of the images that I pulled together on the fly that day of my father's class. These are things that make me happy. What about you?

The sustainable pre-fab home called Loblolly by Kieran Timberlake.

Experiments in vernacular and contemporary architecture by Bryan MacKay-Lyons' annual Ghost Lab

Bikes in cities.

A varied and walkable city block (especially one that's in a neighborhood undergoing a grassroots renewal like this one in Station North District of Baltimore).
Effective public transit.

Clever green roofs.

Re-purposed industrial buildings, like this mill in Portland, Maine, which now houses musicians and graphic designers.
European cities, especially the kind that look as though they have sprouted from the landscape. This is Cinque Terre in Italy.

The interior of my former sublet in Brooklyn.

A good city market, like La Boqueria in Barcelona.

A vibrant pedestrian life. This is Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a recent fall day.

An amazing juxtaposition: A lawn sign in Hale County, Alabama. Behind it, a $20,000 house designed by the Rural Studio in a new development by Greensboro-based non-profit, Hero.

Just about anything designed by New York-based AvroKo. Above, a key wall in the restaurant Public. Below, the interior of European Union and the graphically-branded bottles from Quality Meats.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Work of Eileen Wold

Smokestack Night, 2004. Oil on Canvas by Eileen Wold.

I met artist Eileen Wold this fall at an Ignite night in Baltimore and became intrigued by her work. Eileen focuses on energy and the landscape of industrialization. A short piece I wrote about her work just went live on the Metropolis magazine site. Check it out.

And check out her Ignite presentation:

The New Power Plant

The missing tooth: row house blocks missing houses Notice the desire lines in the grass on the vacant lots.

Throughout the fall I volunteered with an amazing group of architects and developers to discuss an innovative green approach to building in an urban setting. We met in the early hours of the morning before work at a diner to think about how to activate vacant land and abandoned houses in order to revitalize Baltimore's struggling neighborhoods. We developed a pre-fab building concept called The Plant and we presented the idea at the Baltimore Bioneers Conference in November. We've launched a new blog and it includes the PowerPoint presentation explaining the idea. Check it out by Clicking Here.

Inserting the prefab structure into the vacancies between row houses.

Activating the adjacent sites with gardens and footpaths.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Defensive Architecture

A small sitting area in front of a row house. This is located just off of the sidewalk on a public street in Baltimore.

I will never forget the day, some 15 years ago, when I first read the work of Mike Davis. His essay, Fortress L.A., examined the many ways that cities work to keep out segments of the population via design. He wrote about how public space was thwarted in a very calculated manner:
"One of the simplest but most mean-spirited of these deterrents is the...barrel-shaped bus bench, which offers a minimal surface for uncomfortable sitting while making sleeping impossible. Such "bumproof" benches are being widely introduced on the periphery of Skid Row [in Los Angeles]. Another invention is the aggressive deployment of outdoor sprinklers. Several years ago the city opened a Skid Row Park; to ensure that the park could not be used for overnight camping, overhead sprinklers were programmed to drench unsuspecting sleepers at random times during the night. The system was immediately copied by local merchants to drive the homeless away from [public] storefront sidewalks. Meanwhile Downtown restaurants and markets have built baroque enclosures to protect their refuse from the homeless. Although no one in Los Angeles has yet proposed adding cyanide to the garbage, as was suggested in Phoenix a few years back, one popular seafood restaurant has spent $12,000 to build the ultimate bag-lady-proof trash cage: three-quarter-inch steel rod with alloy locks and vicious out-turned spikes to safeguard moldering fishheads and stale french fries."

I thought about Davis the other day as I walked through a new, planned community on the water in Charleston, South Carolina. Tucked into a well manicured lawn was this bird feeder:

It’s a gated bird house in a gated community. Ringed with spikes and wire meshing, it keeps out the wrong kind of birds and animals and serves only, I suppose, aesthetically-pleasing, cute little birds. I took this walk on Thanksgiving day. Inside the enormous new houses people were sacrificing glistening stuffed poultry in the name of gratitude.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Shopping Local

iPod case from Space Moderne. $16.

Malls make me tired and sad and the thought of shopping for gifts makes me cranky (so does the balance in my checking account). My super organized friend, Mary Alice, has already purchased all of her holiday presents. Show off. And she bought everything from local designers and crafters without going to the mall. She went to Etsy, which lets you search by region and see the latest products from your city. I checked it out today and here are some things that popped up under the Baltimore search:

Baby knit hat for $20 by baby love bug.

Flour Sack Tea Towel for $8 by tlane.

A pendant of real hydrangea petals pressed into a sterling silver by Tiger Lily Shop. $25.

A wheel-thrown stoneware colander by Karamiska for $25. I love this because it reminds me of classic metal kitchen colanders (I got the one pictured below for $1 at a flea market. It can be used as a hanging chandelier with votives inside or a hanging flower basket in the summer)

Personalized stationary by Three Wheels Design for $16.

Poppy shirt by Red Prairie Press, $28.

Handbags by Pistol Stiched, $90.

Then there are all of those amazing Baltimore designers just floating around out there on the World Wide Web. Jewelry designer Lisa Cimino (and good friend; that's a disclaimer), just launched a new site.

And if you're looking for holiday cards (or wedding invites, or birth announcements, or any other printed materials for that matter), visit Fold Invites online (OK, another friend). Designer Jennifer Walter did my wedding invitations and they were amazing —letterpressed on beautiful paper with craft envelopes:

For friends with infants or babies on the way, there's the Small Roar line by local designers Mike and Stephannie Weikert:

Now imagine if, instead of fighting a suburban mall or hunching over a computer screen, you could go to a physical location in the city of Baltimore and see some of these designs year-round? Sound good? There's a movement afoot to create a Baltimore Center for Design, and some discussions about including a physical store in the space. Visit the Center for Design Web site (and get involved in the grassroots effort to make the Center a reality.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Q & A: Tom Oslund

Medtronic Patent Garden in Fridley, MN

I interviewed landscape architect Tom Oslund this fall during a trip to Michigan. The Q & A is now online at Metropolis magazine. Here are some snapshots of Oslund's work...

The new Harley -Davidson Museum that he worked on with Pentagram:

The new I-35 Bridge, to replace the one that collapsed in Minneapolis:

Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis: