Friday, January 30, 2009

Project M Lab

Outside Project M Lab in November, 2008. Photo by Luke Williams

In November I went to Project M Lab in Hale County, Alabama with a group from MICA's Center for Design Practice. I sat down with John Bielenberg for a Q & A and the transcript from our talk just went live on the Metropolis Web site. John is coming to Baltimore next month to help facilitate a meeting about the Center for Design effort here. Check out our conversation by clicking here.

And check out Project M's latest Blitz in Iceland, which happened this week. From John:

"My Project M team in Iceland just completed 7 M BLITZ's in 48 hours. That's 2 days from start to finish! The goal was to use design to do something positive, in the public realm, as a response to the current economic crisis in Iceland. They were required to produce a 48 second video to document the project. I'd like this to become a global movement among young designers."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Higher Ed Architecture

A few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion on the proposed Stefan Behnisch building for the University of Baltimore Law School. In thinking about the international design competition that led up to the selection of that architect, it occurred to me that one of the biggest developers in Baltimore today is higher education. Johns Hopkins University has expanded both its Homewood and its East Baltimore campuses; the University of Maryland has expanded on the West side. The Maryland Institute College of Art in recent years has added two dynamic structures to its campus—The Brown Center and the Gateway Building. And now UB has hosted a design competition that attracted some of the top names in architecture. In the case of MICA and UB, the schools have taken on the role of patron, advancing architecture in the city (JHU and Univ of MD, on the other hand, failed to capture this opportunity and produced mediocre design). Could the universities go even further? Could they inspire beyond the bounds of their campus?

Last year, Syracuse University named its dean of the School of Architecture, Mark Robbins, a senior advisor for architecture and urban initiatives. The Architect's Newspaper reported at the time that "the struggling upstate city has already benefited from the attention of Robbins and the university, and in the next couple of years Robbins plans to roll out an impressive roster of new buildings and initiatives both for campus and town, including projects by such marquee name designers and emerging talents as Toshiko Mori, Koning Eizenberg, and Field Operations."

This week the school announced the winners of From the Ground Up: Innovative Green Homes, a design competition for sustainable housing under $150,000. The goal:

"From the Ground Up seeks to provide a new model for formerly vital, urban residential neighborhoods throughout the United States through the creation of sustainable, affordable housing. Selected teams will work on infill sites, proposing designs for an 1,100 to 1,500-square-foot, single-family home. The goal of the competition is to create innovative designs for cost efficient, green prototypes that are sensitive to the scale and composition of the existing conditions, while providing a new vision that is legible to a wide array of existing and potential residents."

This is something that I've talked about with people in Baltimore for years—a competition that looks for sustainable, inexpensive infill housing for the vacant lots and broken teeth of rowhouse blocks. (Here's one solution that a group of us came up with.)

Here are the finalists from the Syracuse competition.

Cook + Fox's Live-Work Home. The facade is a perforated sunscreen.

This design created by Philadelphia firm Onion Flats can also be turned into duplexes.

ARO and Della Valle Bernheimer partnered on this design. Called R-House, it is fabricated out of polycarbonate and aluminum.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


y friend Melissa and I have a monthly ritual where we drive out to the suburbs together and shop at Trader Joe's. We stock up on things like cheap organic milk and chicken. The store has great house brands, like their orange blossom and honey french liquid hand soap.

Today I picked up a tissue box strictly because I liked the design (wasteful, yes, but at $0.99 not too bad). I loved it not only for its graphics, but for the way it addresses just about every aspect of the tissue.

The top of the box:

The sides of the box:

And my favorite:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New Day Dawning

Each year the Pantone Color Institute selects a hue from among a rainbow of possibilities and gives it the distinction of Color of the Year. It's kind of like the Academy Award for color. The particular tone goes on to enjoy a rich career, finding its way into clothing, furniture, and accessories. Pottery Barn, West Elm and the like will tint their perennial favorites with it.

And the 2009 winner is...




"In a time of economic uncertainty and political change, optimism is paramount and no other color expresses hope and reassurance more than yellow," the company says on their Web site.

Who knew I was so prescient for hosting a brunch with mimosas on inauguration day? There was a lot of ...ah..."hope" in my house that morning:

(empty bottles of proseco)

Event: Monthly Design Conversation

(Click on the image for a larger version of this invitation)

After a month hiatus for the winter holidays, the Baltimore Design Conversation is back! And it promises to be a good one...

Wednesday, February 4
6:30 - 8:30 pm
WindUp Space, 12 W North Avenue

In addition to the countless plans of the past, a plethora of plans has been created by/for Baltimore recently, including the Charles North Vision Plan, the Pratt Street Concept Development Plan, the Middle Branch Master Plan, the Sustainability Plan, the Bicycle Master Plan, One Park, etc.

What happens to these plans after they've been created? Why were they created in the first place? How can we improve the process of engaging everyone in the planning process? Do you have your own master plan ideas that you'd like to share?

Come to the next installment of the Baltimore Design Conversations on Wednesday, February 4th to discuss these topics and more. Several conversation-starters have been confirmed:

Eric Gordon (
George Kleb (Operation Reachout Southwest's SNAP)
Sarah Zaleski (Baltimore's Sustainability Plan)
Steve Ziger (One Park)

Additionally, an A/V system will be available for short impromptu presentations; however, if you know that you would like to present, please contact before the 4th.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Secret Life of Power Lines

Latitude: 42.01354 Longitude: -71.66617 and Half-Mile Radius by Adam Ryder. From the exhibit On the Grid.

Life's been busy. Lots of good stuff going on, including a research project that I hope will turn into a longer form publication (sometimes called a "book," but I hesitate to even whisper that word). There's also lots happening in Baltimore with the Center for Design and our monthly design conversations. More on all of these developments soon...

With life so busy—and with a lack of Internet connection at my home due to the wonderfully unaware and inconsistent folks at Verizon—my own blog has taken a bit of a hit. So lest you feel disconnected, you can stay informed via my alter blogging ego on Metropolis P/O/V. This morning I wrote about a fascinating research project involving power lines. Check it out here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama in Baltimore

We got to see Obama give a speech during his train stop in Baltimore on Saturday. It was an amazing day walking through the city. The inauguration has got me thinking about civic architecture in the U.S and our approach to crowd control...

A helicopter passing behind City Hall

Security on the tops of buildings.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Design Thinking

A clever bathroom solution as seen on IKEA Hacker, home of some great design thinking.

Wow. Not a good time to leave the blog for a few days. Those ass chairs had top billing for far too long.

So what have I been doing? Working too much and recovering from the world's most pernicious cold. Four solid weeks of it. But my fuzzy head is finally clearing and the beauty of all the sick time has been the reading. I'd never read Wuthering Heights, which is a perfect winter novel. I also had the great fortune of getting a brand spanking new copy of Susan McCallum-Smith's first collection of short stories, Slipping the Moorings. One of the more funny, well crafted books I've read in a long time (Baltimore readers can see what I mean when Susan reads from the book at Mina's in Hampden this Saturday).

There have also been design books: Century of the City from the Rockefeller Foundation and the new book about Seattle-based Mithun. I also picked up a copy of The Art of Possibility, which had been recommended to me by a few people. It's a self-help book of sorts for business (and personal) life and a designer I admire told me it helped transform his thinking about his practice. The opening chapter of the book hit on a thread of thought I've been having for some time now about design thinking. Titled "It's all invented," the chapter talks about how everything in our lives is a construct, it's all made up. The houses we live in, the cars we drive, the laptops we use for blogging—all invented.

As humans, we begin to accept invented forms as givens. Our brains require a sequenced series of connections to perceive and define reality. But when you strip back those connections, you realize that much of our beliefs are based on assumption.

Here's a small example. I bought a towel bar from Target last year. It didn't look right in the bathroom so I never hung it up and I forgot to take it back to the store in time to get a refund. I thought, well, I've got this towel rack and no need of it. My husband looked at it and said, "We could use that for a pot rack." Flip it upside down, hang it from the exposed wooden rafters in our kitchen, affix "S" hooks to it and voila. A pot rack. My literal mind forgot that other options were allowed. I saw the words, "Towel Rack" on the box and the metal bar was forever defined for me. (This inspired me to start a list of other breakthrough uses titled, "I didn't know you could do that with that..." )

Design thinking at its best is this kind of inversion of accepted norms. If everything is invented, then you have the power to invent something yourself, be it a product, a business model, or a more expansive worldview.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Best of the Worst

This is wrong on so many levels. ‘Him and Her’ chairs by Fabio Novembre. All images from

allpaper magazine just released its annual Design Awards issue (where Kanye West was one of the judges), but an even more entertaining list is the online companion to the print magazine titled "And the Winner Isn't..."

"You can't blame a designer for trying, but sometimes even the best intentions fail. We've shown you the good, here's what we thought were the disappointing, contrived and just plain bad designs of the past year."

Some of their picks, like these top hat lights, are easy targets (as is the fishbowl with a detachable orange, 10-speed silicone dildo. You really have to go to the site and check this out).

The editors took particular glee in eviscerating designers meddling with other designers' work. The ass chairs above blaspheme the memory of the Panton chair and a classic Aalto stool is burdened by a designer's new fabric. They really didn't care for what Gwathmey did to Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building at Yale.

"Architect Charles Gwathmey deserves plaudits for his incredibly sensitive rehabilitation of Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building at Yale," they write. "It’s a shame then that his own extension to the same building was such an unimaginative, mismatched effort."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Event Reminder: Tonight!

Above: Dominique Perrault Architecture of Paris in association with Ziger/Snead Architects

Looking for something to do later tonight? Join me at the University of Baltimore for a panel discussion on architecture and design and the recent UB Design Competition:

In Retrospect—UB Law School Competition Panel Discussion
Thursday, January 8, beginning at 6:30 PM
5th Floor Recital Hall of The University of Baltimore Student Center, 21 West Mt. Royal Avenue (SE Corner @ Maryland Avenue)
Free and open to the public

The Program:

The Baltimore Architecture Foundation will host a panel discussion about urban design and how architecture is being made in the 21st century based on the recent international design competition for the new University of Baltimore Law School Building. The winning team of the $107 million project is Germany's Behnisch & Baltimore's Ayers/Saint/Gross. The building will be located at the NE corner of Charles St. & Mt. Royal Ave. with an anticipated completion date of August 2012.

The evening’s panelists include architects: Roger Lewis, FAIA (a competition juror and Professor Emeritus at UMCP), Jeremy Kargon (of Morgan State University), and Craig Purcell (of Brown Craig Turner), with Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson (a writer of architecture & urban planning). The discussion will be moderated by Charlie Duff (Executive Director of Midtown Development Corporation).

For more details:

Baltimore Architecture Foundation

UB Campus Parking Map

Foster + Partners of London in association with Cho Benn Holback + Associates, Inc

SmithGroup Companies, Inc. of Washington, D.C.

Moshe Safdie and Associates, Inc. of Somerset, Mass., in association with Hord/Coplan/Macht of Baltimore

Behnisch Architekten of Stuttgart, Germany, in partnership with Baltimore’s Ayers/Saint/Gross, Inc.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Salvation! Aisle Four.

Abandoned and vacated houses aren't the only result of this economic fallout. Abandoned strip malls and big box stores are becoming a major issue. A WalMart Supercenter can be as big as 187,000 square feet. When it's up and running, it employs 350 or so workers and stocks more than 142,000 different items. When it closes its doors, that's a lot of building.

I met architect Ellen Dunham-Jones during a conference this fall and she told me a story that I could not stop thinking about—vacated WalMart stores are being retrofitted for mega-churches. I recently got a copy of Dunham-Jones's new book in the mail, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, and it includes some examples of these churches. The book offers a study of the infrastructure of America's sprawling, suburban lifestyle and makes a compelling argument for a more urban-focused approach to suburban design. I highly recommend it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

What I Did Over Christmas Vacation

I spent part of my holiday in Charleston, SC, which is home to my in-laws. They recently moved to a new housing community located along the Wando River in Mount Pleasant, just over the bridge from historic downtown Charleston. One day we took a short drive to see a house built by Charles Pinckney. This was his plantation and farm; he had another house in Charleston proper. Bricks outline where the slave quarters once sat.

Getting to Pinckney's Snee Farm property in the 1700's from downtown Charleston was likely a laborious trip along the coastal marshes. Today, it's a 30-minute drive across a bridge and along the increasingly car-clogged Route 17. Mount Pleasant is now a bustling suburb and the gated community where my in-laws reside is filling quickly with new homes.

Snee Farm was sold to developers and a bumper crop of 1970's-era homes dots its pastures. The Pinckney's (then rural) plantation house looks wildly out of place now, sequestered on several acres amid crowded cul de sac communities.

I imagine Pinckney's city home and country home looked and functioned quite differently, built as they were in an era before air conditioning. Each was designed to respond to its particular setting. In the country, you had wide and open porches fronting the house. In historic downtown Charleston, homes often included a double-story "piazza" or porch, which was added onto the side of British-style townhouse to help make them more breezy in the humid summer months. Stewart Brand remarks on this in his book How Buildings Learn. "Add-ons often become a distinctive part of a generic building type," he writes. The piazza "soon became a famed vernacular—the Charleston "single house."'

The typical double porch, Brand explains, was built on the south or the west side of the house to give it protection from the summer sun and to capitalize on the sea breeze. The piazzas were accessed by a door facing the street and the porch served as a narrow outdoor hallway for the house. From the front, the door would appear to go into the house itself, but from the side you realize it opens onto the porch. This also served the function of keeping the porch shielded and safe from the public street.

The Thomas Lamboll House on King Street in Charleston: The door opens onto the porch and shields it from public view.

It's remarkable how we emulate an aesthetic quality even when it no longer retains its practical purpose. In the new housing development where my in-laws reside, my husband pointed out this home:

The "front" door.

The front door cloaks a classic piazza, only here it is replicated on a suburban, air-conditioned home with a wide lot. The porch faces inland, away from the coastal breezes and is situated to the east, making it ineffectual as anything more than decoration. It's also kind of funny to see that door on the front when the side is exposed and wide open, when clearly people are taking those side stairs into the home's other door. Here is a suburban home mimicking the quality of its nearby downtown cousin. If Pinckney were dropped down on this street today, he might wonder why they didn't just build a porch.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Design Event: January 8

The international design competition hosted by the University of Baltimore Law School inspired the Baltimore Architecture Foundation to hold a panel discussion on January 8 about the future of urban design and they've asked me to be a part of it. It's free and open to the public, so come join the conversation. You can click on the above image for a larger view of the invite.

New Year, New Ideas

The latest issue of Urbanite magazine includes a feature spread on innovative ideas for 2009. Yours truly contributed a short piece on the future of infrastructure. Check it out. Happy New Year!