Friday, September 24, 2010

Architecture Counts

This past weekend you might have missed two news articles, one in the New York Times and the other in the San Francisco Chronicle, both of which touted the power and draw of architecture. Not a news flash for those of us in this profession, but certainly something that Joe Six-pack doesn't think about. The interesting aspect of the two articles was the fact that they came from completely different directions in the process of reinforcing the importance of design.

The easy article, about Herzog de Meuron’s de Young Museum in San Francisco, was on the front page of Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. "Popular de Young Flourishes", by Julian Guthrie didn’t waste time in getting to the third paragraph and a reinforcing quote by Director John Buchanan:

"The building is a big part of the success. Its exterior. Its Interior. The tower. It all works. So we started with the great gift of the building."


"When the de Young opened, everyone knew it was going to be a great building and a success. But I don't think anyone knew it was going to be the gang-buster it turned out to be."

If anyone remembers the old de Young, and how dusty and sleepy it felt, this new-found success is staggering. Keep in mind that the aspect of the museum that changed is and was only the building - they didn't change the collection and they didn’t change the location. By changing the building only, the de Young has catapulted itself into the position of being the art museum with the fifth highest attendance in the United States.

The harder article to de-code was an opinion piece in Saturday's New York Times Business section by Joe Nocera, titled "In Skyscraper at Ground Zero, Sentiment Trumped Numbers". You may recall the early iterations of something called the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in New York. The project, nine years on, is now reaching skyward and the re-named 1 World Trade Center is now up to something like 20 stories.

The interesting aspect of 1 World Trade Center is the economics of the project, and the underlying reasoning for it to be proceeding forward. The building currently has an assumed construction cost of $3.3 billion, which would make it the most expensive skyscraper ever built in the United States. More importantly, this price tag will make the rent structure required to pay for construction to be two times that of the equivalent office space in adjacent high rises, and one and a half times the rent of pricier and more attractive office space in mid-town Manhattan.

So, why would someone (or, in this case something - the Port Authority of New York) spend that kind of money? It comes down to the idea that architecture can embody ideas and ideals of society. In the words of one observer of this project, "You can only understand this as a political statement. It makes no sense as a commercial real estate endeavor." Which really begins to help you understand why the height of the building - 1,776 feet - was not coincidental.

Architecture counts. It counts in large amounts. It can count on a commercial level like it has for the de Young (even if they weren’t aware of this affect at the start of the project) and it can count on a sociological level like it has for Ground Zero. We need to reinforce this within our own offices, and we need to make sure that those outside the profession understand this.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Nicolas Hayek died this week. Not a name that is going to be familiar to most (if, in fact, any) of you, I am sure, but one that should be. Not to cloud the story below, but before we get started it should be noted that Nicolas Hayek played a key role in the development of the Smart Car.

OK, here's the stage to be set:

Imagine a craft that is no longer appreciated by the general public. This craft takes too much time and energy to produce a product, at a rate that no one wants to pay for any more. This craft has been superceded by a digital alternative.

Sound familiar to the design world?

Here's what happens next:

A person is hired to come up with a business plan to phase out an entire country's craft workforce. This person decides instead to "re-invent" the craft, as opposed to abolishing it. This re-invention goes on to kindle a renewed interest in the original craft. Everyone and everything lives happily ever after.

This, unfortunately, does not sound familiar to the general design world.

OK, so what's the story?

Hayek was hired in the early 1980's to come up with a plan on how to liquidate and re-purpose the Swiss watch industry, by a group of Swiss banks who were worried about what little assets they had left in the industry. Swiss watches, which were generally labors of love, were being outmoded by Japanese digital watches at the time, produced by companies like Seiko.

Hayek took a look at the whole picture and decided that there was a better solution, and proceeded to buy a majority share in the Swiss conglomerates that owned brands like Omega, Longines, and Tissot. He then used this firepower to introduce Swatch, which seemed at the time to be the non-Japanese inexpensive watch.

The Swatch watch went on to be an item touched by many designers, collected by people, and sold in the hundreds of millions. Keith Haring was just one of many names who produced designs for Swatch.

The Jelly, with its see-through everything, was a Swatch that seemed to be everywhere at the time.

Long story short, the Swatch renewed interest in Swiss watch making, pumped billions of dollars into the very old-craft industry ($4.9 Billion in 2009!), and lifted the boats of all the brands above the tide line they were sinking into.


What we do as designers (or craft artists, or whatever you call yourself) may not appear to be valued by the public. And, it may appear that the industry is undervalued and waning. But, somewhere out there is a solution for this state of affairs that just needs someone to look at it in a new light - and, not a light that has been predetermined in scope, intensity or direction by others!

Pay attention to the past. It is the future.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Independent of what you think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think we can all agree they don't seem to be going as planned. That may be because the planning isn't exactly clear - at least not visually - for those doing the work.

In a Powerpoint-gone-mad presentation, the war was laid out in all it's glory for General Stanley McChrystal, the leader of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

His response: "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

Is the image a result of the war, or is the war a result of the image?... I'm not quite sure of that, but I am sure that somewhere along the line most American's seemed to have lost the ability to convey ideas simply, either visually or otherwise. Maybe with a little more background in this, the United States might have thought twice before sending close to 200,000 soldiers half way around the world. I know Napoleon would have thought twice had he seen Edward Tufte's visual graph of his march to and from Russia:

Or, maybe with better communication skills we wouldn't have had to trek across the globe to get someone to agree with us.

As anyone who spends any time in my office knows, I harp daily on the inability of architects to communicate with others. Which is a funny thing, given that we are - basically - in the communication business. You know... Put something down on paper to communicate to someone else, so they can take our thoughts (marks on a piece of paper) and make them into physical objects.

But, the ability of architects to write simple complete sentences in English, seems to have been lost somewhere between the 3D model on the computer screen and the job-site visit.

I would strongly suggest that everyone pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and start using it. Maira Kalman’s version is a little friendlier for the designer crowd.

Otherwise, we may all end up Paul Newmans.

Or, even worse, we may end up trying to talk about foreign policy like Donald Rumsfeld.


Friday, April 23, 2010


The fascination with obituaries continues… I’m sure this one bounced right over most of your heads, but George Nissen, the father of the trampoline, passed away a few weeks ago near San Diego at the age of 96.

In the 1930’s, George, along with his gymnastics coach, invented what they called, at the time, the bouncing rig. After a 1937 tour to Mexico, and after hearing the Spanish word for diving board : el trampolin, an “e” was added to the word to turn it to Spanglish (as well as a trademark – hello, Kleenex!), the trampoline was born.

Visions of Bauhaus inspired Gymnasium Halls in both East and West Germany come to mind… In fact, the 1972 Munich Olympics come to mind, where Frei Otto’s entire construct seemed to be inspired by trampolines.

Which all leads directly to architecture… Sort of… That is, if you are in our office working on House of Air, a new trampoline facility to be installed into an existing hanger in San Francisco’s Presidio, along the waterfront at Crissy Field.

House of Air is currently under construction, and will hopefully open for business in August, this summer. The clients have taken a large step forward in thinking that what might, in another city, be merely an amusement park, requires, in San Francisco, a certain amount of architecture to attract a slightly more sophisticated clientele. We are looking forward to the entire enterprise coming together in late summer!

How much you think the House of Air plays into the world of architecture is up to you. Trampolines, though, have integrated themselves into the world of architecture and design, most notably as part of JDS architect’s recent scheme for an intervention into the central void of FLL Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York.

And, for those of you looking for the trampoline equivalent of ABBA (or, maybe the Wiggles), Hold Music’s trampoline video may do the trick.

Happy Bouncing!

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Obituaries

At the end of every year, while most people are comparing their personal best-of-year lists with their favorite movie / music / literary (you fill in the blank...) critic, I look forward to the New York Times Magazine's annual obituary issue, recounting the rich lives of many of the people who passed away in the prior twelve months. Short of that issue, though, I camp out a lot on the obit page of the Times' daily edition. See an earlier blog entry on Bob Noorda.

Last Saturday was no exception, and there it was - Ruth Kligman's life history, distilled into a dozen short paragraphs. You may not remember Ruth Kligman, unless you saw 'Pollock', the 2000 movie about the artist's world. Ruth was the sole survivor of the car crash that took Jackson Pollock's life after a hard day of drinking. Or, maybe you might know her as the subject of Willem de Kooning's painting named after her, "Ruth's Zowie". De Kooning and Pollock were two of many artists Ruth "bumped" up against, including Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Franz Kline. But, what Ruth Kligman might be best remembered for is her life's motto as well as something Franz Kline told her. Her motto : "Art is my life." And the life reflection Mr. Kline imparted on her about being an artist and what people outside the art world think of you : "They think it's easy. They don't know it's like jumping off a 12 - story building every day."

Jackson Polllock:

Jasper Johns

Ruth's Zowie:

On the same day as Ruth Kligman's obituary, it was a short jump across the page to Raimund Abraham's. An architect's architect who definitely did not make it look easy. His built work can pretty much be counted out on one hand. His influence, though, is hard to grasp with two outstretched arms. Teaching at RISD, Cooper, Pratt and SciArc, Abraham touched a generation of architects in a mini-Hejdukian manner.

Abraham spent more time drawing and imagining the world of architecture than he did building it. To Abraham, in Lebbeus Woods' words, architecture "existed as an act, a concept, a discipline." His drawings were captivating and enigmatic, rich in imagery that connoted other worlds and meaning.

Abraham drawing:

His architecture did as much as well. Abraham's Austrian Cultural Forum in Manhattan was, in his own words, "a cross between 'Blade Runner' and an Easter Island sculpture".

Austrian Cultural Center

Abraham was killed in a car crash in Los Angeles after giving a lecture at SciArc. The final sentence he shared with the eager students in the audience:

“You don’t have to become a slave in a corporate office or a groupie of a celebrity architect. All you need is a piece of paper, a pencil, and the desire to make architecture.”



Monday, March 8, 2010

Abivalent Embassies

The summer of 1969. Neil Armstrong had just taken one small step for mankind and it seemed incredibly hard not just to be proud of, but to actually not brag about, being an American. Meanwhile, on the far side of the world (at least that's what if seemed like at the time), the Viet Nam war was dragging the country deeper into a quagmire that seemed inextricable, and the rest of the world was beginning to see the country in a little less of a shining light.

In late August of that summer, I found myself with my mother in Athens, Greece needing a visa to travel north through Yugoslavia and several other Eastern Block countries to return to West Germany. To do this, we needed to check in at the American Embassy. Visualize a larger, imposing building with Marines in Dress Blue uniforms in front - it felt like we were calling on someone, or something, very important. And, we were - the United States of America seemed like it was at the apex of its weltanschauung as perceived by the rest of the world.

Flash forward to today. The perception of the United States by the rest of the world... - visualize something in your mind. Now, take that personal visualization and construct the idea of a new Embassy. Say... In London.

Poof! Does it look like one of the following? Does what you think the Obama Administration might want to project to the rest of the world look like one of these?

KieranTimberlake's design, the first photograph, won. The next three, were designed by Richard Meier Architects, Morphosis, and Pei Cobb Freed, in that order.

Here's what a few critics have said about the winning design:

Jonathan Glancey of The Guardian:
Cool, remote and superficially transparent, the winning design does reflect what we can divine of the US political process. Nominally open to all and yet, in practice, tightly controlled, the system of US government and its prevailing culture, aped bad-temperedly in Britain, does indeed inform the brief to KieranTimberlake and their response to it.

James S. Russell, US Architecture correspondent at Bloomberg:
Of course, it's difficult to create a compelling statement when America's place in the world is hotly contested at home and its international intentions are debated everywhere. America can't even create a coherent climate-change policy. This ambivalent embassy perfectly sums up the extraordinarily difficult Obama moment.

From my vantage point, this building appears somewhere at the convergence of Edward Durrell Stone, corporate America, and the USGBC LEED requirements. Is that what we have come to?


Monday, March 1, 2010

Responsible Architecture

Most of you probably missed Andy Smith and David Fox's presentation at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. I for one feel perfectly fine ensconced in sunny California, as opposed to dreary Boston this winter, but I would have liked to have heard what they had to say. The announcement for their talk struck a cord with me, as I am sure it would with most architects:

Architects as Stooges for the Business of Greed” emerges from the notion that the practice of architecture has become so marginalized in contemporary culture that the gatekeepers of the built environment, the new “architects”, are the wealthy and their bankers: architects have simply become those who do their bidding. Quoting Sambo Mockbee: “We have become lapdogs of the rich.” It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the leap to conjuring up images of McMansions.

What we should really be thinking about, though, are Case Study houses, and what they did for the average American.

Or, maybe to jump even further, we should be re-conjuring up the ideals of High Modernism, where there was a belief running through the veins of architects that what they were doing could change the lives of people - think Corbu's Salvation Army.

Smith and Fox's lecture was sponsored, in part, by SOCA, the GSD student-run organization for social change and activism. David Fox's work is associated with a University of Tennessee program titled UPSIDE : Urban Program in Sustainable Design Education, which is a direct outgrowth of Sam Mockbee's program Rural Studio at Auburn University.

While many architects are engaged in transforming dreams of wealthy clients into three dimensions, many others, actually, are actively engaged in trying to make the greater world a better place. Work Architecture Company, a firm in New York, is working with Edible Schoolyards, an organization founded by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, to bring her program to an inner-city school, PS 216.

Many of you may, or may not, know that Edible Schoolyards got its start here in the Bay Area, at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and has traveled as far away as Yale. It's a great idea, despite its detractors. Even in a dreary winter - New York, Boston, or otherwise.

Architects can make a difference. Andy Smith and David Fox can rest easy.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Design Revolution

When we put a book together to show the work from our office, Machinations of a Small Office, I included the following:

Designers say they are professional problem-solvers; here are some problems:

1. In 1991, 6,019 people were wounded or killed by gunfire in New York; 530 were children.
2. The number of U.S. welfare recipients increased more in 1990 and 1991 than in the previous 16 years combined.
3. One of every 53 New Yorkers is infected with HIV.
4. Each day, some 137 species become extinct mostly because of rain forest destruction.
5. Coffee filters are often a hassle to pull apart.

Which one of these looks like a design-size problem? Well, here's the solution : the One-at-a-Time Coffee Filter Dispenser from Black & Decker.

This was a quote from Karrie Jacobs and Tibor Kalman in their essay "The End", in the book The Edge of the Millennium. You may remember Tibor Kalman for his product firm, M & Co, for his work for Esprit’s Colors Magazine, or for his “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack” image for Colors.

I was reminded of the quote above when my son turned on The Colbert Report recently and Emily Pilloton was fending off snide comments from the host about saving the world through design. She did a great job, obviously having had a lot of practice in getting her road show, The Design Revolution Road Show, literally on the road.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Emily Pilloton
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

The road show centers around the idea that design can actually change the world, and that designers can do more than make coffee filters more convenient. As an example, Emily showed a pair of liquid-filled eyeglasses that can be self-adjusted for the correct prescription by someone far from an eye doctor, to provide sight! Simple idea, huge good!

Many of the products that are trying to make the world a better place are documented in her book, Design Revolution : 100 Products that Empower People.

Making the world a better place comes in a lot of flavors, and often isn’t always something that is clearly black and white. All you need to do is watch Emily try and answer simple questions on what is good and bad about the designed world:

But, we can try to make a difference. There are a million ways to - none of them wrong. Try!


Friday, February 5, 2010

Ames Shovels

When El Nino rolled into California a few weeks ago with the fury of winters past, I found myself at the Ace Hardware in South Lake Tahoe, buying a snow shovel for my car. CalTrans' "Just in Case" syndrome had me walking down aisles of candles and emergency blankets. When I grabbed the snow shovel, I immediately was struck by the fact that it was made by Ames Shovels.

Ames Shovel may, or may not, jog a few brain cells for you, but for me it was a jolt to see that the company was still doing exactly what it had been doing for the past two hundred years.

Not that any of us are shovel aficionados, but if you think far back into that architectural history class, you may remember a few of H. H. Richardson's projects when the name Ames is mentioned. You may also remember Trinity Church in Boston, perhaps Richardson’s most famous built project Richardson designed a large number of projects, (see map) primarily in New England.

Richardson, the father of Richardson Romanesque, found a patron in Oakes Ames, one of two brothers who provided all the shovels used to stretch the Trans-Continental railroad across North America.

A resident of North Easton, MA, Ames hired H.H. Richardson to design a number of projects, including the Oak Ames Memorial Hall + Ames Free Library in town, as well as the Ames Gate Lodge at the Ames Estate.

Eventually, Richardson also designed the Ames Monument in Wyoming, which is certainly worth the side trip if you find yourself in the upper Plains. Along with Richardson, Augustus Saint-Gaudens contributed a bass relief of Ames. Saint-Gaudens is perhaps best known for his Robert Gould Shaw Memorial bass relief monument on Boston Commons, and like the Ames Monument, Saint-Gaudens’ home site is worth the side trip if you are in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire.

A shovel in a hardware store reminded me that architecture and the history it has constructed can weave its way into everything. It’s a rich world out there, take it all in!


Friday, January 29, 2010

Bob Noorda

It may have been missed, but Bob Noorda died earlier this month. Unfamiliar to most, if not all of us, Noorda was the graphic designer of of the New York City Subway system signage. Think letters and numbers inside colored circles. Think very simple and straightforward arrows directing you to the next train. Think actually getting to the next train efficiently.

Noorda's mark on our culture seems obvious today, but prior to his work each subway station was addressed individually, and the signs, the fonts, and the general display of information was different at each location. Certainly quaint, but difficult to navigate for the average visitor.

Interestingly enough, when Noorda started working on the project, he wanted to use a type font called Standard Medium, developed in his office after the font Akzidenz-Grotesk. Primarily, Noorda (and, presumably the MTA) didn't want to pay for Helvetica. Sort of like Microsoft versus Apple...

As a side note, if you haven't seen the movie Helvetica, you need to put it on your Netflix list. Massimo Vignelli, who was a partner of Bob Noorda's, plays a large role in the film.

As a final note on Bob Noorda, I will quote him:
"Don't bore the public with mysterious designs."