C-BIP Studio Part I

 or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Retrofit

A current architectural fad (if I may call it so) is to tout the advantages of retrofitting older buildings for new uses, rather than tearing down and building new.  Many reasons are given: saving historic buildings is inherently valuable or preserves our history and culture; 80% of the US building stock was built in the past 50 years, so it's important to address these (mostly energy-inefficient) buildings; it's more environmentally sound to retrofit than to build new, once you account for embodied energy of materials; and it's often cheaper than building new.  One of the philosophies of my current studio, the Columbia Building Intelligence Project (or C-BIP), that I appreciate is that retrofitting buildings in NYC is taken as a given: your project is a retrofit, end of discussion.  Further, most of us have taken the view that energy savings is at most a bare minimum, a minor issue; of course the retrofit must reduce energy usage, but what is it "really" doing?  Our team, for example, is grappling with issues of inclusionary housing, elder care, increased density and its implications structurally and programmatically, maximizing value (financially and socially), and what it means to upgrade entire blocks of similar building types instead of individual buildings.

Recently I heard Michael Kimmelman, the NYTimes architecture critic, speak at GSAPP in a conversation with my history professor, Gwen Wright.  They remarked how Kimmelman, who many expected would write up buildings as precious artifacts given his art criticism background, is now being criticized for writing mostly about urban issues from the "man on the street" point of view.  His recent article about a retrofit of a Paris housing project is in a similar vein; he asks residents what they think of the project (mixed feelings, of course) but ultimately decides in favor of the strategy.  He reviews the same statistics I did above, providing a survey of the how and why of retrofit as well as what its effects were in this case.  (I think he's also trying to respond to the recent discussions around demolition versus preservation of "urban renewal" housing projects in general, see also his article on the Pruitt-Igoe controversy in response to this recent documentary.)  I really appreciate his focus on this issue, as well as his acknowledgement of architecture's strengths and limitations in solving difficult social problems.

My point in all this: I think it's about time we stopped worrying about justifying retrofits, and started worrying about doing really good ones.  Architecture school right now, or at least this one, seems to be mostly about individual artistic endeavor, as it has been for quite a long time now.  Projects where your individual creative voice is obscured, or where you didn't imagine the entire project ex nihilo, don't qualify for design awards.  As is starting to be the case with "green design," where reductions in energy use are expected rather than avant-garde, I hope "the retrofit" will come to be seen as a standard base upon which your architectural creativity should operate.  This will probably require a move away from the standard studio/school model... but at least in C-BIP we're giving it a try.

Expect more C-BIP commentary to come!


Park Avenue Armory

Last week while I was on spring break, I visited the Park Avenue Armory, also known as the Seventh Regiment Armory, a military building (armory) now used as an arts venue and undergoing renovations by Herzog & de Meuron.  The tour I attended took us through rooms in different stages of the renovation process: pre-, post-, and in-the-middle-of-renovation.  I recommend the tour, led by the Armory's staff historian (a GSAPP HP graduate), to anyone interested in seeing some historic preservation in action!  Click any photos to enlarge.

Veterans' or Tiffany Room - windows and fireplace by Louis Comfort Tiffany; used by veterans of the Seventh Regiment.  This room has not yet been renovated, but should be "brighter" and more colorful after renovations; compare to the second photo below.

One of the finished upstairs company rooms.  The company rooms were furnished by the individual 10-man companies of the regiment, each in a different style to the taste of the company.

 The renovators chose to leave imperfections in the walls and ceilings rather than paint over them.

 New copper chandelier by H & dM

Original chandelier in one of the rooms currently being renovated (note the temporary ceiling scaffolding holding the ceiling up)


Movie Review: "Bill Cunningham New York"

No, I don't know anything about fashion, and no, I didn't pick out this movie (that honor belongs to Justin).  But I feel obligated to review it because "Bill Cunningham New York" was one of the best films I've seen in a while.  This documentary made me want to go downtown, track down Bill Cunningham, and give him a hug.  And then maybe find the filmmakers and give them a hug, too, for good measure.

The documentary follows the New York Times' 83/84-year-old fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who has been photographing street fashion since the 1950s or 60s in New York.  The film shows him to be almost naively honest, moral, and fair, rejecting money and anything that would compromise his artistic vision or his genuinely positive message that fashion represents our self-expression.  He lived (at the time of filming) in a tiny one-room apartment filled with filing cabinets of his photographs, with no kitchen and no bathroom ("just more rooms to clean").  He rides his bicycle everywhere, and cares little for his own clothing or comfort.  His only interest seems to be finding beauty, the beauty of beautiful people and beautiful clothes, since there is no point in looking at what isn't beautiful and no need even to consider it.  He rejects negative comparisons between people and styles, although he's perfectly willing to point out when a designer has copied (inadvertently or not) another designer's work.

The absolute joy he takes in his work, as revealed in the film, is something I think we all wish for; the question for most of us is what we are willing to give up in return.  It seems that for Cunningham, there is nothing to give up - nothing is as important as the work.  Perhaps this doesn't make him a role model for everyone, but his absolute integrity, refusing even a glass of water at celebrity charity events in order not to feel indebted to his hosts, is nothing if not admirable.  He's the kind of professional who will only retire when they carry him out in a coffin (hopefully not as a result of a bike accident, although this seems likely!).

The film itself was well-paced, nearly all the people interviewed were interesting (or crazy), and it was impossible not to like the subject himself.  The few times where the filmmakers became present, as interviewers or when interacting with Cunningham (especially in the scene where he insists that they will not follow him to Paris, but of course, they do), provided a baseline of normalcy against which Cunningham's eccentricity played nicely.

As a paean to an artist and his vision, "Bill Cunningham New York" is convincing, and shows Cunningham to be not just a revered figure in New York and the fashion world, but someone we all should respect.


Exhibition Review: "Foreclosed" at MoMA

This Thursday I went with a friend to see the latest architecture exhibition at MoMA, "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," which is sponsored by the Buell Center (an affiliate of GSAPP).  The exhibition shows five project proposals for re-designing suburbs with high foreclosure rates across the US.  Most of the five firms who contributed also teach at (or are otherwise associated with) GSAPP, so they were familiar groups.  Additionally, last semester was the "housing project" semester for us, so just a few months ago we were working on our own housing designs.   Overall, I was surprised and amused by the similarities between our (student) proposals and these (professional) proposals; many of the ideas and intentions were the same, leading me to wonder if these ideas are architectural "fads" that circulate almost subconsciously here in the city.  See commentary below on each project for more specifics.  You can read about each project in more depth on the "Foreclosed" website - I've linked to each project.

1. MOS with Hilary Sample (GSAPP Housing Studio Coordinator): "Thoughts on a Walking City"
Since Hilary is a GSAPP professor and I've seen this project before (she presented it during the housing studio), I'll pass over it.  Suffice to say that it is more on the radical/speculative end of the spectrum of proposals.

2.  Michael Bell and Visible Weather: "Simultaneous City" in Temple Terrace, FL
Michael Bell is another critic at GSAPP, but not one I've had before.  Although his group's proposal was filled with slick renderings, I was not at all convinced, because it didn't look like anyone on the team had really thought about or looked at Florida's climate.  There was text saying that the project would do this or that regarding climate, but one look at the images was enough to show that it would be ridiculous in Temple Terrace.  All that glass would need to be washed continuously!  Besides that, where is the vegetation in the renderings?  Nothing in Florida looks like the images below - stark white and reflective - because it would blind you, and vegetation takes over whenever it gets a chance.  Maybe it's just the style of the images, but it looks to me like no one on the design team had been to Florida.

3.  Zago Architecture, "Property with Properties"
This is another project that left me feeling unconvinced.   The talk about "misregistration" and flexible boundaries etc. didn't seem to do much to change the overall standard suburban layout of the proposed subdivision.  The models were amazing, although Seussical in their color choices and shapes.

4.   WORKac, "Nature-City"
(Another GSAPP-related firm)  I didn't look at the text for this one as thoroughly as I should have, but I blame this on the craziness of the visual material.  I'm not totally sure what's going on, but it seems pretty cool.  The ensemble of weird shapes makes me think of Koolhaas, specifically of "City of the Captive Globe," while the main site model really begged for having a model train going around it.  I can't say that the project made sense, but it was fun to look at.

5.  Studio Gang, "The Garden in the Machine"
This project most reminded me of the my own housing project, where we too tried to imagine a mixed-use building that would allow families to increase or decrease the amount of space they used as their families grew or shrank.  We ended up designing a kind of factory-like building with the potential to be reconfigured as needed.  Here, Studio Gang proposes literally deconstructing an existing factory to salvage its materials and build a new mixed-use group of buildings.  I liked the image style very much.

I'm not sure what I took away from this exhibition other than the general feeling that we students are generally on the same page as these practitioners, and that I don't know whether that's a good thing.


When Life Gives You Coconuts

Here's another throwback post from something that happened last year, but was too good not to share since I have photos.

Imagine our surprise when we open the mailbox and discover...  a one-pound coconut!  (Despite its mailing labels, I suspect it was delivered by a pair of sparrows.)  Well, you know what they say: when life gives you coconuts, make delicious coconut macaroons macaringues... chocolate-covered coconut balls!

1.  Hammer
2.  Coconut
3.  Some other ingredients... suit yourself
4.  Chocolate
5.  Patience and safety goggles
6.  Did I mention a hammer?

Step one:  Using hammer and nail, poke hole in coconut to drain coconut water.  Wait.  Set aside coconut water.

Step two:  Again using hammer, crack open the coconut.  This will be harder than it should be.  Then peel the coconut and shred it, while trying not to injure yourself.  This works best if you've baked the coconut a bit, to give it a false sense of security.

Step three:  Mix shredded coconut with other ingredients and smush into little round shapes.

Step four:  Bring out that hammer again and smash some chocolate into smithereens.  Then melt it.

Step five:  Dip coconut things into melted chocolate.  Bake.  Or not.  Eat.

Special thanks to you-know-who-you-are for the coconut.


Stuff I Made for Fun

Because fun stuff is awesome.

First:  My Halloween costume.  Corellian blood stripes from http://www.costumecostumecostume.com/ (warning: very hilarious 1990s-style website); boots are Ovation equestrian boots; jacket from (believe it or not) Old Navy.  Pin on jacket states "My other car is the Millenium Falcon."  Not up to official costuming standards, but could be worse!  The blaster is laser cut corrugated cardboard.  Drew it myself.

Second: wedding invitations.  I know this is quite belated... but I thought there might be some individuals interested in seeing the variety of invitations I made.  All the sheets that look like decorative paper are discarded drawings from my fellow GSAPP M. Arch. 2013 students (if you recognize your own, let me know so I can credit you!).  I cut down the sheets to size.  The ivory RSVP cards are discarded card catalog cards from the GSAPP Slide & Video Library.  Also, I'm going to post some more wedding-related drawings on my Pinterest & Google Plus (Picasa) albums.


Movie Review: "Objectified"

I can't pretend to be exceptionally knowledgeable about product design, but as an almost-architect, I like to think I know a decent amount.  So I've considered it my duty to watch Gary Hustwit's trilogy on design, Helvetica (on typefaces), Objectified (on product/industrial design), and Urbanized (on urban design).  I haven't gotten to the third one yet, but I wanted to go ahead and discuss the first two before I forget.

Like Helvetica, I thought Objectified was a nice, shiny tribute to the design world, providing a narrow range of viewpoints on design ("does design matter more than everything else, or just more than most things?") without really convincing the viewer that design matters at all.  The sequences showing items in production were cool, but none of the talking heads and silent panning shots did much to persuade me of anything.  I wish the director had done more editorializing.  The most engaging person he interviewed explained how Apple laptops are manufactured from individual aluminum extrusions; the most ridiculous, a curator saying she thinks designers should lead the world.  Everyone in between was busy making stuff without thinking too much about it, or thinking only to the extent required by the design community.

Although it's fun to see designers at work in their shiny happy world, and despite the token nod to "the importance of sustainability" at the end (punctuated with sighs of "the old masters of product design didn't have to deal with this, weren't they lucky"), I didn't feel much moved or enlightened at the end of the 75 minutes.  I can recognize a few more names on the wall in MoMA's architecture & design section, but that's about it.

Here's to hoping for more substance in Urbanized.

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

What better time for beginning on one's New Year's resolutions than spring break?  I propose starting the new year with something I hope will be more interesting (and sustainable) than bad food pictures: reviews.  There are already plenty of good food blogs out there, anyway.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, professor, media researcher, and author Neil Postman argues that 1985 realized not Orwell's but Huxley's dystopian vision: We live now in a society where politics, history, and culture are irrelevant and laughable because we have created a society of perpetual amusement through television (and, by extension, the internet).  Television (and YouTube's) reduction of political discourse and reasoned argument to soundbites and video clips has made rational choice impossible; the commercial has become the new model for education and politics, relying on image and emotion to move rather than educate viewers; and televangelism has turned even religion into a spectacle without sanctity or meaning.  The speed of television "news" floods our lives with irrelevant information that fragments our understanding and makes public discourse "essentially incoherent" (69).*

While it's sometimes easy to ride along with Postman's critique, I think that he gives too much importance to media's role in shaping public discourse and not enough to general cultural shifts.  Further, he sometimes seems to succumb to the "television style" himself: He cherry-picks events and incidents as examples of television's reductive methods and uses a style that is more entertaining than scholarly.  While I grant that the medium of communication determines, to some extent, the content of what is said using that medium, I don't agree that media changes (or determines) everything; I think Postman's exclusive focus on the shift from print to television ignores other important cultural changes of the past century that were perhaps more relevant to the change in political discourse he describes.  I also agree that technology isn't neutral, or as Postman says more polemically, "To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple" (157).  But then, Postman's entire argument is based on the claim that the medium of communication isn't neutral, that it determines what can be said and how, so the real surprise is how long it takes him to get around to stating this claim (seven pages before the end of the book, if you're curious).  It's still an important claim to make, though, so I'm glad he finally made it.

Fortunately for us, Postman proposes two solutions to the problem of television, one jokingly and one seriously, and both, I would argue, already completed.  So perhaps despite himself, television isn't that big of a problem, after all.  The first - "nonsensical" - proposal was to use television against itself to demonstrate its weaknesses, through a parody show that "show[s] how television recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc" and which would probably follow the form of Saturday Night Live.  Between "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," I think we have this one covered.  Postman called this option "nonsensical" because he thought in the end television would co-opt the parody into a farce: "In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, one would have to make the programs vastly amusing [...] The parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and would end up making television commercials" (162).  Although this may be true of Colbert, Stuart has thus far avoided making movies or commercials and perhaps can be said to fulfill Postman's plea.

The second proposed solution, the "desperate answer," was to teach students in school about the powers and problems of television, to educate ourselves out of the mess we've created.  (Of course, this would have to apply to educating ourselves about the internet, as well.)  But I think we've also accomplished this in the better school systems; at least, my teachers took great pains to show us that Wikipedia's answers were no better than, and probably worse than, a conventional encyclopedia's, and that television never had the real or complete answers.  I think that most of us have already learned "how to distance [our]selves from [our] forms of information" (163) such that we can think critically not just about what is said but about how it is said.  A tweet is very different from a dissertation, and a blog post from a book, although tweets and blog posts can both become books.  Perhaps we should, today, be more wary of print media than of Twitter, since it comes to us in the guise of scholarship but may contain nothing more than what's trending.

In short, I think Postman's book provokes some interesting discussion, but isn't anything to be concerned about.  I think we all know by now that the absurd soundbites we hear from the 2012 Republican candidates aren't the whole story of American political discourse, although it wouldn't hurt to force them to spell out their views in position papers.  I agree that we shouldn't base our important decisions merely on the information from the pseudo-debates we see on the news.  But the internet has made more relevant information more accessible, and so in that sense perhaps it is a partial return to the culture of print.  In any case, I think we'll be ok.

*I think in this last respect, maybe what Postman really hates is the postmodern/ fragmented/ discontinuous qualities of our contemporary experience of the world, which he claims emanates from television, and not television itself.  (He does claim consistently that he thinks that purely amusing television, with no pretended serious purpose, is fine.)  I don't think we can pin everything we don't like about post-modernity on television.