Alexandra Lange, design critic and author, joins us to discuss designing for childhood. From groundbreaking concepts in early childhood development to the environmental dangers we’ve created in cities, Alexandra shares the extensive insight she gained while researching for her latest book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.” We dig into the external forces that have evolved and shaped the world around children – blocks, homes, schools, playgrounds, and cities.
Picnic basket. Badminton racket. Jigsaw puzzles. Cold-weather gear. All these items and hundreds more spill across the floor, as a sorrowful blonde clutches more rackets and a baseball glove, a Madonna of the closet. This full-page photograph by Herbert Gehr was staged to accompany a 1945 Life story on the storage wall: the revolutionary new system, designed by architects George Nelson and Henry Wright, that was going to help the American family organize the 10,000 objects they had stashed in attics, on shelves, and in basements. Thirteen feet long and 12 inches deep, the storage wall would separate living room from hallway and house a tenth of the average family’s worldly goods, from sports equipment to stereo system, stationery to board games behind closed doors.
I always thought of the storage wall as #housegoals, a place for everything and everything in its place. I dreamed of clearing the decks of clutter, from counters to coffee table to bureau top, and seeing only clean space and that Aalto vase every architect owns. As millennial home décor has trended toward the minimalist — by choice and by economic necessity — mobile versions of the storage wall, by IKEA and others, have achieved their own level of name recognition. Interiors influencers like Sarah Sherman Samuel have even designed semicustom doors for the Besta in Blush, Agave and Juniper, so their closets and their kid can match. As a mother, I knew putting it all away to be largely impossible, surrounded on all sides by LEGO and stacks of graphic novels.
But from the first days of the pandemic, when flour sold out and masks were hard to come by and the (mistaken) powers that be told us to stay inside, my relationship to clutter changed.
The last shelters on the Marangu route to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro are little structures known as Kibo huts, the first built in 1932. When Robert Hune-Kalter, a Colorado-based bank employee, reached the huts, in July 2019, he might have been thinking of nothing but scrambling to the top of Africa’s highest peak. But he found himself admiring their triangular shapes with their steep, green-painted gables and vertical black siding.
“I liked how symmetrical it was,” he said, “and even mentioned to my friend that it reminded me of the symmetry of a Wes Anderson scene.”
After descending, he sent a hut photo to the Instagram account “Accidentally Wes Anderson,” where it joined pictures of pointy roofs taken in Wildwood, N.J.; Siglufjordur, Iceland; and Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon Territory. All these places resembled alternative sets for Mr. Anderson’s 2012 film “Moonrise Kingdom,” a golden-toned story of young love set against rocky shores, lighthouses and scout camping tents.
In Victorian England, the baked potato had dual purposes. Sold from street-side “cans” — metal boxes on four legs, with charcoal-fueled fire pots within — the potatoes could be used as hand-warmers when tucked inside a mitten or muff, or body warmers when consumed on the spot as a hot and filling snack. Potato sellers by the hundreds set up cans on London streets, selling their wares from August to April, as ubiquitous as today’s ice cream trucks but serving the opposite season.
Buyers and sellers of those spuds had little choice but to be out on the streets, whatever the weather. That’s where the business was, that’s where workers could buy a quick meal, that’s where friends might encounter each other, standing close to the can for warmth. A little food, a little fire, a little chat — these elements made being outdoors in winter bearable.
A hot potato is a small gesture against the elements. But it is also inexpensive, portable, requires minimal setup to cook and comes in its own wrapper. For the winter ahead, American cities need a lot more ideas like the baked potato: pop-up comforts, at many scales, that can gather a crowd outdoors and ensure people get the sun and socialization they need. Don’t write off the darkest season before it even begins. What if cities took their cues from the Victorians, and made no retreat from the elements? What if we spent Covid winter outside … and enjoyed it?
When the Vessel at Hudson Yards opened last March, among New Yorkers’ many complaints about the 150-foot-tall, Thomas Heatherwick-designed mirrored-copper sculpture was the fact that you had to sign up in advance to climb its 2,500 steps. A designer who understood New Yorkers — and not just his billionaire client — would have understood that we do not like to wait.
How quaint that attitude (my attitude) seems now, as I watch New Yorkers line up all across the city — on spray-painted and duct-taped lines, inside subway stations, and awaiting entry to public bathrooms, grocery stores, farmers markets, and museums. Signing up months in advance for a summer slot at a rural campground used to seem like a normal inconvenience; in the summer of 2020, though, we’re signing up for slots on ferries to and from Governors Island. Tomorrow, a section of the High Line will reopen on a timed entry system. It’s not difficult to imagine, as temperatures rise and crowds form, that we may soon be reserving six-foot circles in the park, spots in parking lots near public beaches, or 20-minute time slots at the local splash pad or pool. The fall will bring still more time slots — chosen, not by us, but by teachers and employers.
One of the most potent tools for reopening leaves no visible trace: We can make more space in dense cities by taping off chunks of time, not the floors of our buildings.
In the 2009 trial of the founders of Pirate Bay, the defendants were quoted as requesting that the language of the court be amended “We prefer AFK (Away From Keyboard) to IRL (In Real Life)” they said, “because we think the Internet is real.”
Representations of buildings in video games frequently use recognisable forms to anchor us in familiar territory, and yet digital landscapes have the potential to expand our horizons and offer us unprecedented access, when compared to the restrictions and rules of the ‘real’ world. Can the digital ‘freedom’ suggested by video games be used to inspire a rethink of how to approach physical projects? Conversely can the ergonomic, sensory and poetic qualities found within designed material space inspire more ‘feeling’ in the virtual? What can each industry learn from the other to better realise the worlds they create? What is the role of architecture in an alternative reality?
A discussion with
Shumi Bose, Writer, lecturer and curator (chair)
Alexandra Lange, Architecture and Design critic
Will Wiles, Author
Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg, Space Popular
Gregarious Kythreotis, shed works
Ibiye Camp, Artist
I spoke to Emmett FitzGerard at 99 Percent Invisible about Instagram’s not-so-invisible effect on the built environment.
But Alexandra Lange doesn’t think Instagram is ruining architecture. About ten years ago when Instagram was just getting going, Lange took a trip to an under-appreciated site for bizarre postmodern architecture: Melbourne, Australia. “I’m just completely wowed by these buildings because they’re spiky, they’re covered in neon… and they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And I suddenly have this overwhelming desire to share!” A visual platform like Instagram was the perfect place to share these slices of architecture that she was appreciating. Lange’s time using Instagram led her to believe that the app can have a positive effect on architecture—a place where you could offer a window into the built world and encourage people to notice overlooked buildings.
Design critic Glenn Adamson in conversation with Alexandra Lange, leading architectural critic, who shared her thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on the built environment – drawing lessons, in part, from her recently published book The Design of Childhood.
We’ve lost quite a few people in the design world since the beginning of the pandemic due to COVID-19. One of them was Michael McKinnell, co-designer of Boston’s Brutalist City Hall, and another voice who is gone too early was Michael Sorkin. Sorkin was an architect and the Village Voice architecture critic in the 80s. He brought a totally new kind of approach to writing about buildings, one that focused on people and politics.
We spoke with design critic at Curbed, Alexandra Lange, about Sorkin’s work, and Roman Mars reads excerpts from one of his works called “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know.”
Design and creativity really can work together. We talk with design critic Alexandra Lange and product design educator Barry Kudrowitz who both have an interest in toys – their history, and how they’re created and assessed in the real world. Get your blocks ready to play along.