Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Rem Koolhaas is the real diva

Illustration by Naomi Elliott.

In the final installment of our summer series, Curbed’s architecture critic re-reads all 1,344 pages of the Dutch architect’s “S,M,L,XL”

S,M,L,XL does not hide its ambition: 1,344 pages. Three inches thick. A dictionary, a chronology, a comic, an excerpt from Delirious New York, plans, diagrams, photographs, poetry, dialogues, history lessons and, last but not least, the work of Rem Koolhaas and his office since 1972. Three authors are listed on the cover of the book, which was published in 1995: OMA, Koolhaas specifically, and designer Bruce Mau. In recent years, editor Jennifer Sigler has also received her fair share of credit in press about the book.

In the first edition, the cover is silver with black and yellow embossed type. One name is in yellow, in lights: Rem.

The first two weighty books I re-read for this series wore their organization on their sleeves. Christopher Alexander worked in numbered patterns, starting with the largeness of the city and working his way down to the smallness of decor. Virginia McAlester organized her field guide chronologically, folk to colonial, Victorian to modern.

Ostensibly, this one is no different. The work of the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), Koolhaas’s firm, is organized into, yes, small, medium, large, and extra-large categories. The texts are interspersed between visual sections. Dictionary entries, definitions drawn from hundreds of sources, run down the left side of the page beginning with Abolish, Absence, Accepted. The result is a jumble and a wave, a wash of information that doesn’t actually hold you by the hand. We aren’t wading in to the work of OMA, but taking the plunge. The first line of the introduction is “Architecture is a hazardous mixture of omnipotence and impotence,” and already the audience is like, You aren’t kidding with that!

Continues: Curbed

What ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’ meant to me as a woman in architecture

Bernadette Fix (Cate Blanchett) at the Seattle Central Library. Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures.

When I first met Bernadette Fox, I wasn’t sure what to think. Fox, the protagonist of Maria Semple’s epistolary novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is a middle-aged female architect who no longer practices, the mother of an eighth grader, an unwilling resident of Seattle, and a MacArthur “genius” award winner married to a TED-talking AI specialist. Two days before Christmas, she disappears on a cruise to Antarctica.

The book was hilarious and felt so real—except for the disappearing part. I started to pick at the details. How long has knitting been a subversive craft? When was the color pink co-opted by feminists? Was Bernadette an avatar of thwarted female creativity for her time or for ours? My real question, embedded in a blog post I wrote for Design Observer at the time, was whether Bernadette Fox was a good role model.

Creating a role model wasn’t Semple’s intention, but as a woman in architecture who, when I read the book in 2013, had a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, the book’s entwined storylines of motherhood and genius and how women find the space to make something great… well, I found it hard not to identify. I rooted for Bernadette against the “Galer Street gnats,” the private school moms who didn’t understand her disinterest in participating in school activities or taking care of her yard. I rooted for Bernadette to seem like a gift and not a problem for her workaholic husband. I rooted for Bernadette and the sense of adventure she shared only with her daughter, Bee.

On August 16, the movie adaptation of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” arrives in theaters, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Cate Blanchett as Bernadette. I had cast Julianne Moore in my head while reading the book, but no matter. Movie Bernadette sports the bangs and round sunglasses of the Keith Hayes illustration on the front of the book. Billy Crudup plays her Microsoft engineer husband, Elgin Branch; Kristin Wiig plays her mom-nemesis Audrey Griffin in a series of holiday turtlenecks straight from L.L.Bean; Emma Nelson plays Bernadette’s daughter, the delightful Bee Branch, whom you will want to adopt. (Light spoilers for both the book and the film ahead.)

When I heard that Bernadette was going to be made into a movie, I was excited. Every time I shared news of its progress on Twitter, other women in architecture were excited too. Bernadette meant something to all of us. But what?

Continues: Curbed

The Big Little Lie of the TV kitchen island

Illustration by Sunny Eckerle.

In the first episode of the first season of Big Little Lies, the blended Mackenzie-Carlson family sits down to dinner together. Roast chicken, green beans, salad on a side plate. A dinner being served in millions of homes across America tonight. Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) has changed out of the alpha-mom outfit she wore to first-grade orientation—spike heels, flowery fit-and-flare dress, mini trench—and into a periwinkle blue sweater that millions of moms are also wearing.

Big Little Lies, the HBO series that wrapped up its disappointing and disjointed second season on July 21, was ostensibly about—spoilers for both seasons of the show ahead—the circumstances behind the death of Celeste’s abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), and the lengths to which five attractive-in-different-ways Monterey mothers would go to cover it up. But I was there for the actresses, the clothes, and the houses.

The family sits not around the dining table but around the kitchen island. The island is, truly, one of the largest I have ever seen, and I have seen all the Nancy Meyers movies. The Mackenzie-Carlson house is a real house, located in Malibu rather than Monterey, and this black, shiny, alien-spaceship of an island is its real kitchen.

Continues: Curbed

Let Christopher Alexander design your life

Illustration by Naomi Elliott.

Second in the series Overdue Books, in which Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange takes a fresh look at classics of the architectural canon.

I received my copy of “A Pattern Language” as a high school graduation gift. I had already declared my intention to be an architect, so my aunt and uncle bought me the design equivalent of the Bible—thick and minimally illustrated, with a specialized system of numerical classification and a studiously typographic cover. If a non-architect is looking for a gift for a wannabe, there it is. As a design-enthusiast, you may have gotten a copy once too; the 42-year-old book is parked at the top of Amazon’s Architectural Criticism bestsellers list.

It looked handsome in my dorm room alongside my new dictionary and Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. And like both of those tomes, I barely opened it. The architecture library was filled with books with lovely glossy pictures. My rudimentary word processing program had a thesaurus. What was a “pattern” anyway? And why were there 253 of them?

The book was enshrined but unread. But “A Pattern Language,” which was written by Christopher Alexander with Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel (all colleagues at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Structure in the 1970s) turns out to be an ideal place candidate for a re-read. A pattern is the way physical design responds to human relationships. I didn’t need it as a teenager, but I turned to it after I got married, and then again after I had kids. Patterns that were meaningless at 17 – like Pattern 73, “Adventure Playground”–feel like breadcrumbs charting a new way of looking at cities now that I’m a parent.

Continues: Curbed

New York City is a mall

The Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, my photo.

I have been to the Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards six times—six times—and yet I’m still getting lost. Is Muji on the second or third floor? Is the Instagram-worthy Van Leeuwen ice cream shop down the hall? Forty Five Ten, the Dallas-born boutique that is the grandbaby of Barneys, is definitely up on the fifth floor, but how do you get from the first to the second floor without passing Blue Bottle Coffee? And what is the fastest route to William Greenberg rainbow cake to placate your kids who hate Vessel?

“It’s just stairs,” they say. “Can we get bubble tea?”

R. Webber Hudson, a Related Companies executive vice president, doesn’t have this problem. He and his team curated the “vertical retail center”—he winces each time I refer to it as a mall—and its configuration is as clear to him as the glass in the six-story atrium. International luxury brands are on the first floor; previously only-on-the-internet brands like M. Gemi shoes and Japanese normcore faves Uniqlo and Muji are on the second; high-volume draws Zara and H&M are stacked on three and four; and so on.

There’s a logic, but I am frustrated that I can’t see it.

Continues: Curbed

Self-Driving Kids

Robert Morse for LIFE, June 1947.

Autonomous cars? Who needs ’em. If you want to improve your city then design it so that children have more autonomy. In this episode we hit the playground with architecture critic Alexandra Lange, the author of “The Design of Childhood.” To grow up into healthy, functional adults, kids need opportunities to experience freedom and independence. Alexandra argues that car-dominated streets make that more difficult. A city designed for cars is a city that’s lousy for families — and pretty much everyone else. Plus: The surprising history of playgrounds.

Listen: The War on Cars