Mar 31, 2010

What would Nicolai Ouroussoff say? Understanding your NY Times Architecture critic

The Public School New York has invited me to lead this discussion on the NY Times architecture critic and the role of architecture criticism. I happily accepted with the caveat that I would love the discussion to be as collaborative as possible. It would be great if other design writers as well as architects and urban designers participated. It's tentatively scheduled for Mon., Apr. 26 at 7 PM (re) scheduled for Monday, May 24 at 7 PM. This school is open free of charge to anyone who's interested, so please sign up and suggest reviews that you might be willing to examine for their basic arguments, rhetoric, quality of writing, nuance, and contribution to the understanding of architecture and urbanism. I will try to suggest some major themes to explore, such as economic development, "stars," how to report on architecture, reviewing renderings, evaluating mega-developments, ideas vs. practices, and how to consider economic and political processes. -STEPHEN ZACKS

Mar 30, 2010

Architecture is Great for Selling Cars

I noticed this Sprint ad shot inside Steven Holl's addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, which the Wall Street Journal also reported on a few weeks ago. This was the best public building I visited in the past decade as a reporter, really an amazing experience to walk through. Cadillac is also using the new Cooper Union building by Thom Mayne in one of its spots for the CTS, as Arch Newpaper's excellent reporter Matt Chaban also noted in February. (I also just stumbled on this 2006 CTS ad that aired in Europe featuring all kinds of Calatrava, I believe.) Mercedes is also using Ben van Berkel's fantastic Mercedes museum in Stuttgart for its E-Class commercials--the museum has a great descending corkscrew progression that recounts the industrial, social, and political history of the past century in a really compelling way and then lands you in a Mercedes dealership. This spot for the Buick LaCrosse also struck a chord with me recently.

It's shot in downtown Chicago and has been out since last fall, but I didn't notice it until recently, and I couldn't help identifying with the Buick brand. Although GM demolished its Buick City complex in Flint years ago, I felt cheered by this really well-designed GM car that's killing in the affordable luxury sedan category. Apparently the LaCrosse is doing especially well in China, where Buick is a prestigious luxury brand, according to this great review in the LA Times last August, and was co-designed by GM's studio in China. It's the favored brand of chauffeur-driven business executive-class as a status symbol, and for its ample leg room in back. I wonder who benefits from GM doing well in China--they still make lots of parts in Flint anyway, and there's one truck assembly plant left--maybe GM pensioners, stockholders (or is just bondholders now that the company is in Chapter 11?), and we taxpayers who own a share of the company now? -STEPHEN ZACKS

Mar 29, 2010

Condos vs. McMansions

The New York Times just published a great news report on a study by the Environmental Protection Agency, Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions, showing urban development outpacing suburban development in the past decade, a major shift and one of the reasons I've been arguing that high-rise condos are a very good thing. This shift happened in the terrible oughts that we've been told since last year we're supposed to hate now. -STEPHEN ZACKS

Mar 26, 2010

The Gowanus as Oyster Farm and Tidal Calming Reef

A little shout-out to super-smart landscape architect Kate Orff of Scape for this fantastic vision of the Gowanus Canal as an Oyster breeding ground as a part of the MoMA's Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfront exhibition. Orff and team uncovered the history of the canal as a source of New York's biggest and juiciest oysters and researched the little mollusc to discover that it's basically a living machine for purifying water, then imagined a watery landscape in New York harbor in which oyster farms serve as tidal attenuation reefs to protect the shoreline against rising water levels.

I'm especially gratified by the payoff image of happy people eating oysters in the end, having complained often about the tendency of landscape architects to imagine the waterfront as a place for unhappy people to push strollers and contemplatively lean over railings as if getting ready to jump. It's also striking how much the thinking behind this project is marked by empirical, research-based processes typical of architects coming out of Harvard GSD, among them Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, Interboro and all the students of Hashim Sarkis. I love this kind of work for its firm rootedness in everyday practices that can be observed and then extended into larger visions of possible futures.

Curator Barry Bergdoll is particularly excited about the exhibition's blog site and its Respond to the Exhibition link that opens up the Institution to public comments and criticism, though its buried so far from the main MoMA page that it has only received four pointless comments so far. -STEPHEN ZACKS

Mar 18, 2010

Google Mapping the Israeli Colony in "East Jerusalem"

View Larger Map

It's a fun little game to look at the conflict over the expansion of the suburban colony in Ramat Shlomo with 1,600 units of new housing using Google Maps. In the satellite image, the development currently housing roughly 1,800 ultra-Orthodox Jews takes the round-and-winding form typical of hilltop settlements, extensively documented by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman through his research in collaboration with Israeli human rights group B'tselem. You can also see the beginning of two highways that extend north and east from Ramat Shlomo. These are Israeli bypass roads that reach into the West Bank and connect its network of settlements and military installations.

A terrible article in the New Republic claims this is all uncontested Israeli territory now because it was claimed by Israel in the final status Oslo agreements that the Palestinians in the end rejected. Not so. It's just that the apparatus of urban planning and territorial control that Israel has perfected has been able to exercise its will to build these suburban-style enclaves, which it afterward argues illustrate an established fact. Basically they're applying the Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law rule. For evidence of the ongoing contestation of this area, here's a regularly updated list of newsworthy events published by B'tselem, including protests, arrests, confiscation of property, house demolitions, revoking of identity cards, and other tools of Israeli suburban development. For a reminder of how aggressive this process has been, take a look at this 2002 territorial map documenting the configuration of built-up Palestinian and Israeli areas.

If you zoom out, Google provides a nice dotted line that corresponds to the 1967 borders before the Israelis took over the area after the Six-Day War. To the upper right you can see some disorganized areas alongside a narrow north-south road. These are small Palestinian towns, and the narrow road is the one that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas use to get to Ramallah. The thicker road to the far right is another Israeli highway that connects to the suburban colonies woven throughout the area and zigzags into the northwest.

If you zoom out a little further, in the bottom right corner you can see a highly concentrated mass of dwellings opposite another highway. That is the Shu'fat refugee camp, established by the UN in 1965. You can also see a series of these winding suburban-style Israeli colonial developments on the right side of the highway. When you travel on the Israeli roads, they are constructed so that you don't see the Palestinian areas. The disorganized areas on left side of the road are all Palestinian, the round winding ones on the right are all Israeli settlements.

Scroll the map down and you see two more disorganized concentrations of inhabited areas. These are the al-Ram and Qalandya refugee camps. This is where the Israeli military checkpoints would stop you to check your papers if you were traveling on the Palestinian road to Ramallah. On the opposite side of the road to the lower right is another Israeli suburban colony.

The entire area we're talking about from the Israeli border to Qalandia checkpoint is about 5 miles long. Most of it, apart from the Qalandia and al-Ram refugee camps, is contained within the Israeli side of the separation wall begun after the Oslo talks collapsed. Since all of the Palestinians living in this area are not Israeli citizens, they are required to have special Jerusalem identity cards issued by the Israeli government to travel back and forth through the checkpoints into Jerusalem. This area is being identified as East Jerusalem, but it is only a part of Jerusalem by virtue of having been annexed and built up with these suburban enclaves occupying the higher ground and connected to Jerusalem by Israeli highways that bypass the Palestinian villages in the valley between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

I did some reporting in Jerusalem in July 2002 for an article on the mapping and planning of West Bank settlements and went on daily trips into the West Bank to meet up with Palestinian architects and Israeli activists on either side. At the time Israel was gradually reoccupying the areas it had ceded control of during the Oslo peace process, which were otherwise surrounded by these informal border posts. A checkpoint is basically a line of concrete blocks and sandbags behind which rows of Israeli soldiers check the passports and papers of Palestinians as they travel between towns. Here's a shot of the Qalandya checkpoint in 2002.

The areas where Palestinians lived were therefore all turned into prison camp-like areas that required Israeli permission to move between, and permission could be refused for any reason, or for no reason at all. Here's a shot of the checkpoint at Bir Zeit, just north of Ramallah, where a bunch of young Palestinians were stopped while their passports were examined and checked against wanted lists.

We hung out there for a few hours, and the young men were gradually moving closer to the solders out of impatience. A soldier came out and told them to back off, then shot a tear gas grenade. One guy got hit in the leg by the canister.

The soldiers were usually hostile in their tone, especially to me, someone with a recognizably Ashkenazi Jewish name and an American passport. It was not generally taken kindly to be going into the Palestinian areas. This guy was an older soldier though, and he was laughing at me because I have a mustache in my passport photo.

At the airport coming in and out of Israel, admitting to visiting the Palestinian territories was equivalent to admitting you were among the highest security threats to the state, and it meant enduring long interrogations by security officials, having your luggage rifled through piece by piece, and possibly having your computer taken away from you to be disassembled and examined. However, at the time there were constant suicide bombings, including this one in the French Hill area near Ramat Shlomo. These guys are cleaning up body parts and pieces of skin and putting them in bags, and spray washing the wall near a bus stop that had been attacked a few hours earlier.

Please let's not go back to those days.


Mar 5, 2010

On the Ourroussoff Critiques: Economic and Cultural Transition

It's impossible to ignore the current context in which the desire to evaluate Nicolai Ouroussoff's work as the New York Times' architecture critic arises. Not only in the midst of a recession, and therefore a convenient endpoint to an extraordinary period in the history of architecture, but also a time in which so many local institutions are undergoing a significant transition. The Van Alen Institute has appointed Olympia Kazi as its new director, bringing a new and bountiful energy to a place that has stimulated so many useful discussions about public space. Anne Guiney, former editor at Architect's Newspaper, is taking over her role at the Institute for Urban Design, which Kazi single-handedly rescued from political turmoil with the support of people like Michael Sorkin. Storefront for Art and Architecture is looking for a new director, which many hope will reground a place that for the past three years has been a great foothold for experiments by young European architects more firmly in the local New York scene.

At the same time so many design publications are being turned upside down: several have closed down altogether or appear to be on their last legs; Architectural Record will have to adjust to a new role next year, no longer the official publication of the AIA; others are suffering from catastrophic declines in ads and editorial pages. As a result there are simply fewer voices reporting on what's happening in architecture. And there's still an enormous amount happening, both in terms of buildings of significance that were begun before the recession--so many of them, such as Behnisch's Unilever headquarters in Hanover or SANAA's Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, deserve much more and better coverage--and in terms of the conditions of the profession and its products during this strange turbulent time.

Reporters and critics accustomed to commenting on new projects are therefore left to helplessly read the few voices that do, for sometimes inexplicable reasons, continue to find a place in print. There is, however, an inescapable feeling that the concerns of this community of editors, reporters, and critics are of a certain parochial character, reflecting the obsessions of the NY design media perhaps more than the public interest claimed by its arguments. There remains the question of the extent to which this process of evaluation and criticism, especially on the part of magazines that explicitly characterize themselves as trade publications, are by definition and by design serving the interests and concerns of the architecture profession, along with advertisers appealing to its ability to specify their products.

Trade magazines serve a legitimate and necessary function, helping the profession understand itself, publicizing less well-known work, uncovering innovative methods, sharing best practices, raising the bar for aesthetic quality, educating potential clients. But it's not the same as the public interest, or the interest of the various publics affected by its promotion of things that can withstand the glare of full-bleed images. The professional deformation of the design press is probably at odds with many of the things its better angels believe are good for the world.

This week Alexandra Lange, an erstwhile colleague at one such trade magazine, posted an engaging critique of Ouroussoff, a writer who holds one of the handful of offices that stand on the edges of the design media. Along with Paul Goldberger at the New Yorker, Ada Louise Huxtable at the Wall Street Journal, James S. Russell at Bloomberg, Chris Hawthorne at the LA Times, Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune, and Robert Campbell at the Boston Globe, Ouroussoff's potential access to a wider public could give his position a special responsibility, if he chose to accept it. It's a position that he could use to influence public policy, or at least perhaps to stall the implementation of political decisions. He could use it to advocate for architecture, or for particular architects, or for political positions about architecture, or for ideas, or for the realization of certain projects, or types of projects.

Has Ouroussoff expanded the number of readers who would read an architecture review or be interested in urban issues, and if so whose interests has he advocated for? My sense is that the office been diminished by his tenor, reaching a smaller audience that mirrors the self-interested readership of the trade magazines. Say what you like about Herbert Muschamp's exaggerated love for certain major figures, he had an enormous and colorful voice that expanded the role of architecture in cities across the world, defining the so-called Bilbao effect that many critics have been intent on dismissing of late. The professional deformation of a writer is to be nostalgic for the heroic age of writing in which it had an expansive role in public life. -STEPHEN ZACKS