Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Building a Baltimore Design Center

This Thursday, the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects, along with several other stakeholders in the design and architecture community, will host a brainstorming session about the creation of a Design Center in Baltimore. The event is open to the public and starts at 6 p.m. at Load of Fun in the Station North neighborhood.

You can read more about the goals behind the get together by clicking here.

Organizers asked for one page white papers that imagine what a Design Center in Baltimore might look like. I've been thinking about just such a space for some time now, so went ahead and drafted a submission. I've posted it below.

You can download other ideas by going to the Envisioning the Baltimore Design Center Web site and clicking on the links under the "White Paper" heading.

Got ideas? Send me an email before Thursday or, better yet, stop by and contribute to the conversation.

Baltimore Design Center White Paper

At the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, the U.S. will highlight organizations and individuals engaging communities in a conversation about their built environment. The fifteen participants in the Biennale exhibition work in vastly different landscapes—from California/Mexico border towns, to downtown Brooklyn, to rural Alabama. Yet the underpinnings of their efforts are the same. Whether it is Detroit’s Collaborative Design Center or Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, each represents the movement of architecture and design into the realm of social justice and offers a compelling vision for the small scale, grassroots change that is possible when creative minds come together without ego.

We are at an interesting juncture for American cities, and Baltimore, in particular, represents a special challenge. We are a shrinking, post-industrial town with entrenched conflicts and disputed territories. We live in a city that is, in places, aesthetically impoverished and inhumane. But we also have an inventive spirit, and, I believe, a renewing sense of self, that can be seen in pockets of creative energy throughout the city. Baltimore has often been called a city of silos: individuals working within their own sealed space. To address our built environment, we must rise above our fragmented past and knit together our disparate efforts around design and planning.

A Design Center in Baltimore could galvanize creative energies and foster new conversations. It can be a place for germinating what our city could and should be in the future, making Baltimore a playground of design, a Petri dish for cultivating new ideas about urban living.

So how do we do it?

There are many models to work from, but the most compelling combine a physical resource center with a creative hub. PROGRAM in Berlin, is a great example. The founders took a cheap physical space in a warehouse district (think Station North) and carved out several functions. There is a gallery for architecture exhibitions and a resource center/reading room for citizens. They offset overhead costs by leasing desk space to freelance architects, artists, and designers, which generates more creative networking. They also have a studio area for a designer-in-residence program, which invites in the best minds to work on urban design issues.

I envision a Center in Baltimore being the place where cutting-edge design meets community outreach. It would:

1. Become the 311 for the built environment.

The Design Center could provide access to information about the built environment, promote transparency in the development process, and connect the silos. Need information on a historic building? Contact the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. Need help streetscaping? Call the Neighborhood Design Center. Want to plant trees? Here’s Parks & People. It could also include an Expert On Call to help with questions: The City says they want to rezone my neighborhood. What does that mean?

2. Inspire from Within

Look for ways to introduce a broader audience to the role that design can play in their lives and empower them to take those lessons home to their communities:

  • Host exhibitions in the Center’s space and discussions that advance the cause of architecture and design in the city.
  • Explore design of everyday elements like benches, bike racks, and signage.
  • Create competitions that invite international participation [For example, what does a shrinking city do with its excess housing stock? Or, how does a city like Baltimore begin to engage and inspire the broader community in a design conversation?].
  • Partner with existing entities, like the AIA, to support and enhance events like Architecture Week. Look to arts organizations already advancing the built environment conversation, such as Art on Purpose, The Contemporary Museum, and The Current Gallery, and work to support and partner. Create pipelines with academic programs at Morgan State, MICA, and elsewhere.
  • Work with strategic partners to create an architecture exhibition at ArtScape.

3. Cultivate Creativity

Create a designer-in residence program with an international reach, one that will bring top minds to Baltimore.

4. Sponsor Design/Build Competition

Be actionable: It’s time to bring in a design/build competition to the city that can show what a difference architecture and design can make.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Farm Grows in Queens

A P.S.1 volunteer scales the "urban farm" structure designed by WORK Architecture.

On Friday, MoMA's Queens outpost, P.S. 1, opened its annual Young Architects Program exhibition. WORK Architecture turned the concrete courtyard into a temporary urban farm. I got a sneak peak on Thursday night and you can read more about it by clicking here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cottage Industry

The Renegade Craft Fair is making its way across the country, and when it came to New York last weekend it landed at the epicenter of DIY: Williamsburg (for those who haven't seen the Hipster Olympics, click here. Empanadas are the new cupcakes)

Vendors from around the country brought their knitting, jewelry, clothing, paper products, silkscreening, comics, zines, posters, patches. etc. to the McCarren Park Pool. Some favorite shops and designers were on hand, like Perch! and Ferdinand Home Store [truth in advertising disclaimer: Diane, the owner of Ferdinand, is associated with Peapod Records in Portland, Maine, the label that just released a CD from Hearts by Darts, my brother's band]


Plenty of letterpress, lots of silkscreening, way too many baby onesies with cute remarks, and a lot of animals in ironic combinations. If the modern-day DIY craft movement had a calling card, it would be a squirrel playing the drums.

A patch designed by the Ferdinand Home Store.

You might argue that one of the founders of this thrift-meets-industry movement is Volksboutique's Christine Hill. This year Volksboutique turns 10 and when you review Hill's mission statement, it reads like crib notes for the likes of Ready Made and Etsy. From her Web site:

The term Volksboutique was inspired by the East German concept Volks-Eigenen Betrieb - the socialist terminology for collective ownership and a production label indicating products made by and for the people.
Volksboutique is an exercise in labor, in public service and conversational skill and in making the most of what one's got.

Volksboutique is an entity incorporating everyday life and artistic practice.

redefines what "art" means and what skills become artistic.

Volksboutique is not theater. It is a production of life.

Volksboutique is Self Starter. Cottage Industry. Do-It-Yourself. Be Your Own Boss.

Hill, who lives in Berlin, was in Baltimore a few weeks ago for the opening of a new exhibit she's a part of at the Contemporary Museum called Cottage Industry. The show includes six artists involved in "the creation of innovative and conceptually engaging business and cultural ventures, both actual and pseudo." Artists like Fritz Haeg, of Edible Estates fame, who unveiled images of his Baltimore project (with photos by Baltimore's Leslie Furlong).

"By often locating their work directly in the social/commercial sphere, the artists in Cottage Industry integrate an entrepreneurial interest in branding and free enterprise with artistic influences ranging from the happenings of Fluxus and the 'social sculpture' of Joseph Beuys to the legendary 'Food' cooperative of Gordon Matta-Clark and Pop Art’s fascination with commodity," the curatorial background explains. "For these artists the delineation between art and living—and between artistic and commercial product—becomes nearly indecipherable."

Fritz Haeg, Christine Hill, and Contemporary Museum Executive Director, Irene Hofmann, at the opening of Cottage Industry.

Volksboutique display, above and below.

Smockshop is a collective that generates income for artists not yet making a living at their craft. Each garment is one of a kind, and is "sewn by an artist who reinterprets the original smock design based on their individual skill sets, tastes, and interests."

My husband is not going to be happy about this picture...He's walking in front of a photo montage of Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates project.

Outside on the streets of Mount Vernon after the opening, some cottage industry-like exchanges happened: Here's my brother collecting a painting he bought over the Internet from artist Alyssa Dennis.

Cottage Industry is up through August 24th.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Opposites Attract

The brand identity package created by Post Typography. Their business cards (top left) were designed to help win them free lunches.

Double duty on my blog postings again: Check out the piece I wrote for Metropolis about graphic designers Post Typography and Ed Fella. They were in New York for an event last week and it was a very interesting conversation about design...

Click HERE.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Living Buildings

A model of a building using FLARE: a kinetic ambient reflection membrane

What if a building's exterior could react to the user? What if the facade could serve as a kind of mood ring, visually articulating the actions happening in and around it via its surface material?

I first saw what I would call an interactive facade on a building years ago in Niagara Falls. My parents had recently relocated to Buffalo, NY and in an effort to make the most of the famously bitter winter, my mom, my brother, and I hopped into the car to head north in search of the Winter Festival of Lights. It was touted as the biggest light show around. They even lit Niagara Falls.

I don't have a picture of what we discovered that day, so I'll describe the snapshot in my mind: The three of us are standing in the frigid December dusk, amid an icy landscape of twinkling reindeer and elf lawn ornaments, mouths agape, as we watch a light show playing on the surface of a nearby office tower. The building is broadcasting Christmas music over loud speakers while bars of colored lights move up and down to the tune, not unlike an equalizer on a stereo. The Andrew Sisters are singing Mele Kalikimaka. I think it was my brother who said, "No wonder Niagara Falls is the suicide capital of the world."

Photo by Seong Kwon, courtesy of the Public Art Fund.

James Yamada's Our Starry Night is a touch more cerebral. The artist created a sculpture for Central Park this spring, an interactive passageway really, that responds to human bodies. The sculpture illuminates only when someone passes through it, and will remain lit if the individual pauses underneath. Yamada (who was born in Bat Cave, North Carolina. Bat Cave!) used metal detectors to trigger the lights and they respond to the amount of metal each visitor is carrying. Passersby can see the light reaction, but the participant cannot, a comment by the artist on the increasing use of surveillance and the loss of privacy in our culture. (You can light up the sculpture yourself until October 28)

In Berlin, designers have created a building facade called FLARE. The modular system is composed of hundreds of tiltable metal flakes individually controlled by pneumatic cylinders. The flakes reflect sunlight and look like pixels formed by natural light. The skin can be attached to a building and programmed via computer to move in varying waves. It "acts like a living skin, it allows a building to express, communicate, and interact with its environment," the Web site says.

Just so long as it doesn't sing Mele Kalikimaka.

FLARE facade up close

Diagram of the component system.

The "flakes"

The pneumatic cylinders

A model of the system

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Interiors: The Radegast Biergarten

I have a great affinity for beer halls, but haven't had the pleasure of being in one since Baltimore's Blob's Park fell to the great momentum of development in December. I was recently invited for drinks at the Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. If you look beyond the overpriced beer selection (they have the smoked Marzen that tastes like liquid smokesee Blob's Park post link) and the cooler-than-thou crowds lining the picnic benches, this is a structurally stunning building.

A vaulted room lined with picnic benches opens to the sky in warm weather. A small counter serves pretzels and sausages in the back. Next door, a massive bar centers a room with plenty of tables:

The interior design was done by a Czech artist and Williamsburg resident named Jirka Kolar through a company called D'art Enterprises. The company's Web site says that its interior approach works to establish the genus loci of a place, the special ambiance. In their own words:

If you desire the feeling of being in a space bubble, you choose a place that evokes such feeling in you. If you need the calmness of a spiritual place, you go to a temple. If you crave the experience of being in a French bistro, you find one that suites your mood. And that is exactly what Jirka Kolar & his D’Art Enterprises make happen.

Kolar specializes in patina. Here is a mural painted inside the Biergarten:

Here is an exterior from a French bistro in New York:

Kolar is also an artista painter and a photographerand his personal work incorporates some of the same techniques used in his interior projects. He takes photos of cities and landscapes and imbues them with atmospheric layers: smoke, rain, haze, paint:

(Images from the artist's Web site)

His Web site says that he "transforms urban landscapes into washed out scenes of urban decrepitude." Kolar juxtaposes odd images to create jarring compositions, like one piece where he melded a photo of smoke rising from the Twin Towers with butterflies. Interesting, then, that his interiors work is about developing just the right layers of grime and aging, while creating more of an opulence for diners looking to feast in an atmosphere of, dare I say it, "authenticity." It's almost as though his artwork mocks the spirit of his interior design work: the one uses patina to create darkness and disquietude, the other uses it to create a built environment meant to embrace and comfort.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

CITY photography competition

Polonia Tree in a vacant warehouse, South Baltimore. Image by Fred Scharmen, featured in his Archinect article: Baltimore, Place of Yes and Yes.

To all my Flikr-obsessed friends (that's you, Seth):

CITY magazine has opened up a fall issue to amateur photographers, with the ultimate prize being a shot at the cover. We need some Charm City photogs to represent. From the editors:

CITY Magazine's second annual ONE CITY, MANY DESTINATIONS travel photography contest boasts the ultimate grand prize: CITY's cover shot. Amateur and professional photographers from around the world are invited to submit images for juried competition and a chance at landing on the cover of CITY's Fall 08 Travel issue, on sale September 30, 2008.
Click here to go to a Web page with more details.