Monday, July 27, 2009

Nice Package

Lately I've been trying to recreate a certain gazpacho. I ate it on a trip through Spain several years ago and it was not at all like the chopped vegetable Moosewood version I was accustomed to. This one was more pink than red due to the day old bread blended with the fresh tomatoes. It had an incredibly rich and smooth flavor, vibrant and fruity with an astringent hit of sherry. I decided to try a new recipe last night and to serve it with a Cobb salad and a pear clafouti.

Gazpacho made in the Andalucian style. Image from Gourmet magazine.

I ran to the store for some olive oil and sherry vinegar. Sitting among the traditional and bland packages on the shelves, something caught my eye: a black and white photo of a man laughing. It was the label for Via Roma olive oil. I looked around and found another photo on their balsamic vinegar, this time with an older woman—the iconic Italian nonna—sitting in a small village somewhere.

The Via Roma olive oil in my kitchen.

When I got home I searched The Dieline, one of my favorite sites for label design. And there it was: a post on Via Roma.

(My favorite is the lady chugging from the wine bottle.)

The packaging was developed by the irreverent design firm United.
Screen shot from the homepage of United.

Photo from the Via Roma campaign.

I discovered that United is also responsible for another brand I've noticed lately, the organic Greenway products that are sold at my local Superfresh.

Turns out the packaging was better than the gazpacho. I'm still on the hunt for the right recipe...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Sondheim and Social Justice

BDC's Geodesic Dome on the terrace outside the Baltimore Museum of Art.

ometimes the conceit wins.”

My husband said this to me as we walked from the Baltimore Museum of Art on Saturday night. We’d just attended the announcement and party for the 2009 Janet and Walter Sondheim Award, the city's premier annual arts award that offers one lucky finalist a $25,000 prize. Selected by a jury of national curators and artists—and plucked from a pool of incredibly talented competitors—the winner also earns the prestige of recognition.

As someone who covers architecture and design for magazines and who often writes about fairness in the built environment and community-centered design, I should have been happy with the outcome. The winners created, among other things, a site-specific project focusing on democratic public space in a struggling section of the city. And yet, I am not thrilled that the Baltimore Development Cooperative beat out the other artists (including, full disclosure, a friend of mine).

A photo of the winners at Saturday's Sondheim Award. Photo from Cara Ober's blog.

If I were a true critic I wouldn't begin to type this because I am woefully ill informed. I don't know the three participants who founded the BDC in 2005—Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester, and Nicholas Wisniewski. I am only vaguely familiar with their work, including Participation Park in East Baltimore. The reporter in me would never go to press. But this is a blog. So disclaimer in place, why am I miffed by the BDC win?

Two words: Social Justice.

The intent of the BDC, on paper, seems admirable enough. Get through the chewy curatorial jargon and hyper-politicized prose explaining Participation Park and you learn that their stated intent is to gather the community around a vacant plot of land in order to foster democratic public space and a dialogue about development. They located the Park at the epicenter of urban controversy: East Baltimore. The neighborhood struggles with crime, violence, drug addiction, and poverty. There is also the greater evil, the BDC points out, of eminent domain and the efficient march over the land by organizations—like Johns Hopkins—with more power than the people. Homes have been demolished and hundreds of people displaced for a new biotech park.

In 2007, the BDC decided to illegally squat on a piece of land on Forrest Street. They began gardening and I give them lots of credit for testing the soil—which they say they did—to confirm no harmful traces of lead or other toxins. Their goal, they say, is to turn this vacant lot into “an urban farm, social space, community kitchen, radical planning studio, free store, and adventure playground.”

They also say that that they are doing this in the name of the people who have been wronged by East Baltimore development and that the residents are very much involved.

(I sought out someone from the community at the awards ceremony on Saturday night because I hoped to ask them some questions. Why a garden? Why this spot? How is this impacting their community? What other needs, besides gardening, does the community have? Do they want an "adventure playground" or a place to organize radical activities? But I couldn’t find anyone from the neighborhood and my questions went unanswered. I wonder: was anyone from the community invited by the BDC to join the fesitivities?)

Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, was one of the judges of the Sondheim and she told the Baltimore Sun that the jury liked the BDC’s social activism and community engagement. “What they are doing is part of a pulse that's happening around the country, an activism that's reminiscent of the '60s and '70s,” she said.

Oliver is correct. The BDC’s work speaks to a broader trend in the arts and architecture community. We are living in an age where architectural stars like Frank Gehry wait for stalled projects to find their funding, but Bryan Bell and Cameron Sinclair travel the globe and build. It is a time when Fritz Haeg, who turns front lawns into edible gardens, wins the 2008 Whitney Biennial (Elisabeth Sussman, curator at the Whitney, was one of this year's Sondheim judges).

The symbols of this new movement appear to be gardens and geodesic dome; back to the land sustainability coupled with Buckminster Fuller’s humanitarian dome design. BDC constructed a dome on the terrace outside of the BMA using found materials and billed it as a place for the community to gather. (It was a nice idea when Fritz Haeg conceived of it nine years ago and turned his home—a geodesic dome in California—into a community schoolhouse with a garden.)

The BDC clearly won over the judges for its “social justice” approach, a phrase that was bandied about quite a bit on Saturday night. One top BMA official told me, “Isn’t this great? Social justice won the day.”

But is this social justice?

Dig a little deeper and you learn that the real intent of the BDC is to stir up trouble. It’s very name, a riff on the Baltimore Development Corporation, is meant to draw attention to the city’s sanctioned development process and to compare and contrast the Cooperative’s actions to those of Baltimore’s quasi-public development arm with the same acronym.

An important component of Participation Park is that it is an illegal squat. In an interview with Alyssa Dennis on the Go For Change Web site last year, BDC artist Scott Berzofsky explained why the group explicitly decided against protecting the land that they garden. They do not want to raise the funds to buy it or take the steps to make it a 501c3 and put it into the community land trust. Why?

“Both of these approaches reinforce the dominant relations of private property ownership that we want to question,” he said.

More than building community, they want to build conflict. They want to bring something to a head. “If there were an attempt to evict us,” he continued, “I would invite it because I think the struggle over the space would generate a productive dialogue about who has the right to the city in Baltimore.”

The BDC believes cooperating with the system perpetuates the system. And the system is the problem. They are not wrong. The system is flawed. It is, at times, unfair and unbalanced.

Trouble is, this neighborhood has been through all this before. They know full well that the system doesn’t work in their favor. They know what it means to fight the city and the private developer and lose. A very organized and passionate group of activists in East Baltimore has worked tirelessly to challenge the eminent domain process and to bring real change. Activist like Glen Ross. The BDC approach is not offering social justice for those in the neighborhood. Rather, the group is traveling over well-worn territory with careless regard for the outcome. Participation Park is less about the community’s needs and more about sticking it to the man.

Let’s say the young artists of the BDC are still around and interested in this plot of Earth in East Baltimore in five years. Let’s say the land is thriving. It becomes a viable and vital gathering place and a means for fresh food. Then the landowner decides to build or to sell. A fight ensues. With no legal claim to the property, Participation Park is closed. Perhaps a few articles on the struggle appear in the paper. Perhaps the artists get more press. Then what?

A more “productive dialogue" would be to find solutions rather than merely poke the bruise. What is the answer to diminishing public space in urban environments? Or the lack of fresh food and jobs?

Compare Participation Park to the work of Milwaukee’s Will Allen. Since 1995, Allen’s Milwaukee-based Growing Power, Inc, has worked a modest 2-acre lot to create fresh food sources as well as innovative and progressive food distribution models for the city.

The layout of Growing Power's headquarters in Milwaukee. I don't see a "radical planning studio," or an "adventure playground," but I do see classrooms, a kitchen, training studios for community members to learn job skills, and a fully sustainable urban farm. (Click on it for a larger image).

Allen won the MacArthur Grant in 2008 for his work. “Rather than embracing the ‘back to the land’ approach promoted by many within the sustainable agriculture movement, Allen’s holistic farming model incorporates both cultivating foodstuffs and designing food distribution networks in an urban setting,” the MacArthur site explains.

A diverse community gathers at Growing Power. Image from their Web site.

Allen is in it for the people in the community. He took the time to form the 501c3, he got the land into a community trust, he partnered with existing entities in the city—those same kinds of entities that the BDC shuns—and he changed policy in order to forge new programs and make real connections.

Social justice is not about whining about how things are. It is not about generating a conflict for conflict’s sake. Social justice is about working the flawed system to promote a new approach. It is about commitment, longevity, and standing up to the harder injustice: the slow and painful process of realizing actual change.

To call Participation Park social justice is wrong. Call it what it is. Activist art. Performance art. Performance farming? But, please, do not call it social justice.

An Additional Note: After posting this, I learned that Will Allen will speak in Baltimore on Friday, July 17. For more details, visit Baltimore Green Works.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

More Human-Centered Design

From the IDEO Web site.

After publishing this morning's post, I opened my daily e-newsfeed from ArchNewsNow and the lead story is about IDEO's Human-Centered Design Toolkit. It's now available online for free. Check out the article in Fast Company.

Architectural Surrogacy

Don Norman, an advocate of smart social design, giving a lecture last year in Chicago.

In the ebb and flow of architectural trends, human-centered design (HCD) is a rising tide. This is a process where the end user is king. The client (or customer or constituency) is asked to define their wants and needs for a space and the architect works to incorporate this information into the final product. This process is linked, in no small part, to the growth of social design. Think Bryan Bell and Cameron Sinclair. Architects and designers engage for the benefit of the community at large. The architect is no longer the sole purveyor of ideas, but rather a surrogate for the needs of the user.

There are instances where human-centered design makes eminent sense. Take hospitals. Kaiser Permanente in California includes nurses, doctors, and patients in the research phase of creating a new building. Understanding how medical professionals, patients, and families use a space can reduce human error and inefficiency and improve patient outcomes. Stroke victims, for example, cannot see or react to people approaching them on their debilitated side. Nurses insert IV's and take blood pressure readings solely from the patient's functioning side. It makes sense, then, to orient rooms so patient beds align the functioning side of the individual with the door. This makes the experience more palatable for the patient and it means the nurse is not forced to walk around the bed to the other side with equipment and IV bags several times a day. This type of insight can only come after consulting with medical staff.

As the concept catches hold in a broader way, human-centered (also called user-centered) design is beginning to see its critics. The process is predicated on one potentially flawed concept: that we know best. Don Norman, who writes extensively about social and human-centered design , uses computer software as an example of HCD gone awry:
One basic philosophy of HCD is to listen to users, to take their complaints and critiques seriously. Yes, listening to customers is always wise, but acceding to their requests can lead to overly complex designs. Several major software companies, proud of their human-centered philosophy, suffer from this problem. Their software gets more complex and less understandable with each revision...If a user suggestion fails to fit within this design model, it should be discarded. Alas, all too many companies, proud of listening to their users, would put it in.

Sometimes what is needed is a design dictator who says, “Ignore what users say: I know what’s best for them.” The case of Apple Computer is illustrative. Apple’s products have long been admired for ease of use. Nonetheless, Apple replaced its well known, well-respected human interface design team with a single, authoritative (dictatorial) leader. Did usability suffer? On the contrary: its new products are considered prototypes of great design.
Norman goes on to say that a fundamental problem with HCD is that it frequently emphasizes the person, not the activity. In a new post on Core 77, Robert Fabricant raises a similar concern.
We have been operating under the assumption that the primary challenge is to convince businesses to focus on fulfilling user needs with higher quality products, with more meaningful experiences. But what if the 'users' themselves are the problem?
In architecture, do people actually know what they need from physical space? With HCD, aesthetics and architectural acumen take a back seat to "pragmatics," when in truth, the user is frequently anything but pragmatic. Their desires can be fickle and flawed.

Hub2's virtual park design on Second Life.

Public parks offer a good example of the disconnect between how we think we want to use a space and how we can actually use it. During a Baltimore Design Conversation—a monthly event where people gather to discuss design in its many forms—conversation curator Ben Stone invited Eric Gordon of Boston's Hub2 to speak. Gordon joined the conversation via his avatar in Second Life, where he and his team have set up a virtual city called Boston Island. When Harvard wanted to expand its campus (again) the university threw neighbors a bone in the form of a new public park. Hub2 was invited to help the community visualize the park using Second Life as a map. A handful of users insisted that they wanted a baseball diamond. It took a few clicks of the mouse to show that a baseball diamond could never function in the space allotted. In this case, the user was shown that their desired intent could not actually work.

Hub2, however, is the exception and not the rule when users are brought into the process. Today, the pendulum threatens to swing too far to the side of the "H" in HCD. By relegating the architect to the users' surrogate, we run the risk of neutering the architect's efficacy. They are rendered neutral and that, I believe, is a mistake. (I am certainly not advocating that we return to the days of the master designer dictating from on high. There is a balance to be struck.)

Fabricant argues in his Core77 post that to effect true social change, we need to design for systems (or for activities, as Foster says above) and not for individual needs. "Over and over, I have seen how a UCD process will tend to emphasize certain benefits of an experience like 'convenience' over other, more meaningful sources of social value," he writes.

By way of example, he shows a utility bill that pits neighbors' energy useage against one another. It is highly unlikely that a user would ever suggest such a strategy. But by bringing this into practice, the designer has created a situation where social comparison has the potential to impact behavior for the better.

Image from Core 77.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Artscape: Temporary Architecture

Sanjit Roy's proposal for the Midway at Artscape.

For the second year, Artscape, Baltimore's annual outdoor arts event, will include a temporary architecture installation on the Charles Street Bridge known as the Midway. Located next to Penn Station, the Midway includes twenty-four 8’ x 8’ Baltimore City festival booths that line both sides of the bridge and face each other. Designers were asked to submit proposals to the city in March for an architectural facade to house these booths and the winner of the 2009 competition is Sanjit Roy (last year it was Gabriel Kroiz.)

You can see Roy's project, titled Art Serpent, during the festival, July 17, 18 & 19.

The 411:

Artscape hours
Friday: 12-10pm
Saturday: 12-10pm
Sunday: 12-8pm

Location of the festival:
Mount Royal Avenue & Cathedral Street / Charles Street
Bolton Hill neighborhood & Station North Arts & Entertainment District

Location of the Midway:
1600 North Charles Street

Testing the concept.

(Thanks to Gary Kachadourian at BOPA for the photos and renderings.)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Pleasure of Your Company

For those of us who loathe Evite (and I really loathe Evite) there is a new "card" company launching this month. Called Cocodot, the service offers online invitations and greeting cards with more stylish designs. I've read that there is an annual subscription of $29.95 and that it's $12.95 per event, but don't quote me on those numbers.

Here are two samples I pulled from their site (my brain is still clearly preoccupied with food.)

Will I use it? The jury is out on that one. I am a big fan of good ole printed invites. But there are those times when a quick email is a lot easier...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Food and Architecture

Steve and Melissa at the stove.

Cooking is like architecture; cooks are like designers. The same ingenuity and reverence for material and craft are key to both. It is that inventive spirit that draws me equally to design and the kitchen and it is what the two can tell us about ourselves that is so intriguing. How we build and how we eat are inextricably linked to how we live. French historian Pierre Gaxette once said, "La cuisine is not a bad observatory for studying la grande histoire." The same is certainly true of observing cities and buildings.

Matt and I just spent several days in Charleston, South Carolina with our friends Steve and Melissa. They are a couple who represent both sides of this architecture/food coin.

Melissa is an architectural historian who specializes in vernacular architecture. She is a reader of culture. She can analyze layers of history, research a structure and its surroundings, and put a building into the greater context of the human experience. She seeks to understand place and meaning and to articulate those elements to the rest of us. And she does it beautifully.

Melissa introduced me to the writing of MFK Fisher. The way Fisher writes about food is the way, I hope, to write about design. In her autobiography, The Gastronimcal Me, published in 1943, Fisher explains why she chooses food over other seemingly "important" topics:

"People ask me: Why do you write about food and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?

They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others...

I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then and their deeper needs for love and happiness.

There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hunger. We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we'll be no less full of human dignity."

While Melissa studies vernacular architecture, Steve, it could be said, is a vernacular chef. Self taught over the years, he is equally inspired by place, season, and indigenous resources. While on a trip to Maine last year, he whipped together a hearty fish chowder from local ingredients. On a recent spring day, he made a dish from the season's first tender peas. He is constantly tinkering with new ingredients and crafting recipes.

I've learned a great deal by watching Steve in the kitchen. There is an economy to his cooking—he is frugal and efficient—yet in his simple and smart approach he generates incredibly flavorful and rich dishes. He is the one who taught me how to make three meal out of one roast chicken. (You can also be inspired by Steve by signing up for his Recipemail.)

During our stay in South Carolina, we brought along some basic pantry items: olive oil, sea salt, soy sauce, honey, garlic, etc. Steve then discovered the local resources: A farmer's market in downtown Charleston for fresh herbs and shrimp; a local store supplying short ribs and fresh fish.

He also used every bit of food available and wasted nothing. He took leftover brown rice from dinner and turned it into rice cakes for breakfast by adding eggs, seasonings, and crushed up stale crackers that had been left out overnight by accident.

Rice cakes.

Steve purchased a nice fillet to mariante for gravalox. He asked the fishmonger for leftover salmon heads. The man offered Steve an entire head plus the spine for free. "Sometimes when you ask for a head, they'll just give you all of this," he said when he got home, referring to the remains of a whole fish.

The fish head with the spine.

Sloppy butchering left lots of meat along the spine, so Steve broiled it and picked off the flesh to make salmon cakes. He then used the remaining bones for fish stock (which eventually became a red curry soup with buckwheat soba noodles). He created three meals—salmon cakes, gravalox, and curry stew—by purchasing just one fillet of salmon.

Steve pulling the meat off the fish.

The fish yielded about a pound of salmon meat. Steve combined it with shaved zucchini, egg, bread crumbs, and seasonings to make salmon cakes that we took out to the beach in a cooler and ate for lunch.

Marinating the fillet to make gravalox. We ate this on bagels one morning for breakfast.

The fish stock.

While we (and by "we" I mean Steve and Melissa) cooked a lot, it's impossible not to go out for a few meals while in the low country. The first stop on the way into town was my husband's favorite BBQ joint, Melvin's. He grew up on this stuff. The pork is cooked over hickory and tossed in a yellow sauce made with mustard and vinegar.

No trip here is complete without boiled peanuts from a roadside stand. My husband turned me onto these. When prepared well, they taste more like salty beans than peanuts. You scoop them out of a hot vat into paper cups.

One night we drove onto Sullivan's Island for a burger at my favorite bar, Poe's Tavern (Edgar Allen Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie in 1828 and his short story, The Gold-Bug, was set here.) Sullivan's Island is a spectacular place, surrounded by the Atlantic and the Charleston harbor. The houses are primarily bungalows and cottages, with a few oversized new-builds mixed in.

This small bungalow shrouded by palms is typical of the houses on Sullivan's Island. (So, sadly, is the Range rover in the driveway. This island isn't cheap)

A dog stands guard on the steps of a Sullivan's Island home.

An atypical concrete house on Sullivan's Island. This is one of my favorite places, built after hurricane Hugo levelled the stick-built home here.

Poe's Restaurant

The "Gold Bug" burger comes with cheese.

On the way to Poe's, we noticed a sign on the side of the road for the annual volunteer firemen fish fry. One thing I have learned over the years is that you should never miss a local church dinner or a fish fry. We decided to come back the next night.

We weren't disappointed. The fish was incredible. Crispy, flavorful, with just the right blend of flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper in the crust, it was accompanied by coleslaw and hush puppies. The grand total for the meal: $8. Cold draft beer was only $2.

Melissa, Steve, and Matt walking to the fish fry.

A band played under a tent on the lawn. Several more tents housed beer and hot dogs, while a large tin-roofed pavillion sheltered the diners. (A good thing since a serious thunderstorm rolled in off the water that night.)

A hand-painted sign from a past fish fry.

The overstuffed fish fry platter.

Can this be right? $8 for three pieces of fish, coleslaw, hush puppies, and just $2 for a cold draft beer?

Close up on the fish. Notice the nice mix of cornmeal, flour, and cracked pepper.

Mmmm. Hush puppy.

We were curious about how this fish turned out so crisp and tasty, so Steve and I asked to pop back in the kitchen. The cooks told us that they use whiting, a mild fish that is often overlooked, Steve believes, because it's not marketed as heavily as other species. The fish batter was store-bought, made by a North Carolina company called House of Autry. The hush puppy batter came from them as well.

Volunteers plate the food.

Behind the line of volunteers, the cooks fry the whiting in large vats of oil.

I also picked up some of my favorite Southern food while in Charleston. I always buy a five-pound bag of White Lily flour, which is made from winterwheat and is the perfect consistency for baking fluffy breakfast biscuits (the best recipe I have found for homemade biscuits is in the Gourmet cookbook).

And one of my all-time favorite southern appetizers—first introduced to me by my mom— is hot pepper jelly served with cream cheese and crisp crackers. It reminds me of growing up in Virginia.