Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Lessons from LA’s 1984 Summer Olympics

Opening ceremony at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

The 1984 Olympics Games proved Los Angeles could do spectacle—on a shoestring budget. Can the city do it again in 2028?

The headline in the Los Angeles Times on October 18, 1980 read “L.A. Will Push For A Spartan Olympics,” stressing that the city’s bid would not include a new Olympic Village, but instead repurpose university dorms and facilities.

“We are invoking the spirit of Sparta,” said once and future Governor Jerry Brown. “There will be zero government money spent. Zero.” “That’s the guy we need,” said movie producer David Wolper of Peter Ueberroth, when he was a candidate for the presidency of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) in 1978. “If anyone can run a Spartan Olympics, the cheap sonofabitch can!”

Spartan was the perfect word for what a non-Olympian might call economical, low-cost, or indeed, cheap. Denver backed out of the 1976 Games, which were picked up by Montreal, and cost 13 times the original estimate, leaving the city with $1.6 billion in debt. The Olympics had to be rebranded as an event that would not tax its host city or saddle it with overscaled stadiums. For the Olympics to have a future, LA had to stay frugal.

Continues: Curbed

The Woman Who Gave the Macintosh a Smile

Courtesy Susan Kare.

Every fifteen minutes or so, as I wrote this story, I moved my cursor northward to click on the disk in the Microsoft Word toolbar that indicates “Save.” This is a superstitious move, as my computer automatically saves my work every ten minutes. But I learned to use a computer in the era before AutoSave, in the dark ages when remembering to save to a disk often stood between you and term-paper disaster. The persistence of that disk icon into the age of flash drives and cloud storage is a sign of its power. A disk means “Save.” Susan Kare designed a version of that disk, as part of the suite of icons that made the Macintosh revolutionary—a computer that you could communicate with in pictures.

Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, was the first to physically show Kare’s original icon sketches, in the 2015 exhibit “This is for Everyone.” “If the Mac turned out to be such a revolutionary object––a pet instead of a home appliance, a spark for the imagination instead of a mere work tool––it is thanks to Susan’s fonts and icons, which gave it voice, personality, style, and even a sense of humor. Cherry bomb, anyone?” she joked, referring to the icon which greeted crashes in the original operating system. After working for Apple, Kare designed icons for Microsoft, Facebook, and, now, Pinterest, where she is a creative director. The mainstream presence of Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, emoji, and GIFS is a sign that the visual revolutionaries have won: online, we all communicate visually, piecing together sentences from tiny-icon languages.

Continues: New Yorker

The end of the architect profile

Illustration by Franziska Barczyk.

My first cover story was a profile of Richard Meier for Graphis Magazine. It was 1998 and the Getty Center was about to open. The magazine did not have the budget to send me to Los Angeles, but it had photos, so I was dispatched to Meier’s office on Manhattan’s west side to see what I could get out of the man in an hour.

Meier has recently been in the news as the first major architect to be publicly accused of sexual harassment by a cadre of former employees. He is taking a six-month leave from the approximately 50-person firm that bears his name. He didn’t sexually harass me; I was only patronized.

In the first (white) Meier monograph, John Hejduk quotes Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick on the meaning of Meier’s signature color, white: “… the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, [serves] to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.”

Continues: Curbed

Lessons from Las Vegas

“Why did it catch on?” asks architecture critic and author Alexandra Lange. “Because people we searching for a way out of the dead end of Modernism. And this book, written by kind of the coolest kids in architecture, seemed like it might be that way out. By 1980, Learning from Las Vegas becomes a text assigned in every architecture school.”
Talking postmodernism on a new episode of 99 Percent Invisible

Spy Kids

Photo by Margaret Lin.

Walking north on Eighth Avenue toward Spyscape—or, as it styles its name, SPYSCAPE—which is billed as “New York’s Spy Museum,” my 10-year-old son spotted Foster + Partners’s Hearst Tower, its diagrid sparkling darkly in the sun.

“Is that it?” he asked, anxious to be there already.

And why not? Joseph Urban’s sand-colored Jazz Age base effectively camouflages the 2006 tower at street level; a clever spy might time-travel via a trip through the building’s revolving doors, shirking a double-breasted suit and fedora pulled low over the eyes for a stretchy sensor-laden catsuit, the better to remain inconspicuous.

Before we even entered Spyscape, we started to see ourselves as actors in a movie, no longer mother and son but players in a game of cat and mouse.

Continues: Curbed

What does a presidential building look like?

Image by DBOX for The Obama Foundation.

On February 27, former President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at a meeting at Chicago’s McCormick Place, the sixth public presentation on the plans for his presidential center in the city’s Jackson Park, currently under city and federal review for its impact on the historic landscape and environment.

Obama’s unannounced speech seemed intended to calm the waters, which have become unexpectedly rough for what should have been smooth sailing: the first urban presidential center, in his adopted hometown, in an area that has long suffered from disinvestment.

“I decided I was not going to miss out on the fun tonight,” he announced, working the folksy side of his persona, dropping consonants and emphasizing his Chicago credentials as if the city had been the only possible choice. (He also considered sites in Honolulu and New York City.)

Continues: Curbed