Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Laying the Groundwork: Women in American Architecture

In this episode, we revisit the first significant effort to publicly tell the under-told stories of American women in architecture: “Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective.”

On view at the Brooklyn Museum from February to April of 1977, the groundbreaking exhibition and simultaneous book, curated and edited by Susana Torre, defined the state of play for women in the architecture profession.

Alienated by the profound hostility expressed by the AIA, women architects found an accepting cohort at the Architectural League of New York. We organized. We canvassed. We raised our consciousnesses. The project team identified subjects so previously obscured as to be unknown, and then with the energy and drive of a furious mob, they broke through and laid the groundwork for scholarship, social change, and recognition of women architects for the next fifty years.

How Design Promotes Better Mental Health for Children

Mass timber and prefabricated elements make Ohana a potential prototype. Photo by Ty Cole.

A clinic designed by NBBJ to incorporate light and nature is part of a sea change in the way that psychiatrists approach children’s behavioral health.

On film, mental health facilities designed for children are too often pale and plastic. Think of the linoleum-floored corridors of Girl, Interrupted, the institutional green trim of It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Behavioral clinics for youth are aggressive in their lack (of color, of amenity, of detail), underlining patients’ separation from the outside world by aesthetically aligning mental health treatment with medical intervention. Fluorescent lights, the sound of a turning lock, barriers to entry, barriers to exit.

In most places, the reality is not so far off from the cinematic stereotype. Both mind and body may be in crisis, but do they need to be treated — architecturally — the same way?

“When people come into emergency rooms, when they need surgery, they expect to be passive recipients of care in sterile spaces,” says Susan Swick, executive director of the new Ohana Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health in Monterey, California. “When you come into a space for mental treatment, these are not passive treatments. It is critical that we engage a child’s curiosity, their sense of agency, rather than surrender.”

Buildings Speak

Marking International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s History Month for 2024, the national women’s advocacy group Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation has announced commitments by more than a dozen major National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate stations to air the new one-hour special Buildings Speak: Stories of Pioneering Women Architects, hosted by Academy Award-winning producer and performer Frances McDormand, a collaboration with the Peabody Award-winning radio producers, The Kitchen Sisters.

Drawn from New Angle: Voice, the award-winning podcast series created by executive producer Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA, alongside the acclaimed producer Brandi Howell and noted writer and editor Alexandra Lange, Buildings Speak features insights from the lives of pioneering women architects Julia Morgan (1872—1957), Amaza Lee Meredith (1895—1984) and Natalie deBlois (1921—2013).

Color Games

Can the pink-and-blue divide in toy design ever fade away?

Many pairs of eyes stare out from the toy shelves at Morning Glory, a stationary store in Flushing, Queens. Big eyes. Small eyes. Eyes that can be made to blink. Eyes with lashes, and eyes that are a perfect circle. But as you scan, with your own, human, blinking, squinting eyes, from one end of the aisle to the other, you notice something: All the eyes are on one end—the pink end. On the other—the blue end—the eyes are replaced by a different round thing: wheels.

On the pink side, Chelsea Can Be, a doll from Mattel’s line for kids too young for Barbie, plays out a narrative of female empowerment with accessories for teaching, sewing, pet care, and construction. On the blue side, Hot Wheels offers a Fat Ride, or the chance to “dodge the attacking Piranha Plant” with Mario and friends.

“They literally made a diagram for my A.I. Toys,” says artist Ani Liu, filming the scene with her iPhone. “It goes from really pastel light pink to black and red and blue. From nurturing to aggressive behavior.”

As Necessary As Food

Review of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Pedagogical Playgrounds by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, with an introduction by Jane Mah Hutton (Concordia Press and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2023).

“Up, Down and Over” read the headline stretched across the pages of the September 13, 1954, issue of LIFE magazine. The photograph above these words showed a set of half-round monkey bars swarming with children, with a mushroom-shaped concrete spiral slide behind. “Goat Mountain,” pictured in a smaller photo, consisted of a series of biomorphic concrete steps, instant topography on which “children play old standbys like ‘king of the hill’ or…improvise games using tiers.”

The featured playground, at 18th and Bigler Streets in Philadelphia, was part of a concerted push by the city to add new children’s facilities at the rate of one per week. “Designed to be pleasing in line, safe to use and stimulating to the imagination, the new playthings cater to the natural inclination of youngsters to climb like mountain animals, crawl through dark passageways and hang by their heels,” wrote the anonymous LIFE reporter.

Also anonymous in LIFE was the designer of the playground, the 33-year-old landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander; this was her first solo project. Today, Oberlander (who died in 2021 at age 99) is Canada’s most famous landscape architect, thanks to her collaborations with the architect Arthur Erickson on key outdoor spaces in Vancouver, including Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. But those lush, layered compositions were only part of her legacy—the classic big client, major location, major architect part. The other part, as captured in Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Pedagogical Playgrounds, was her lifelong
commitment to “up, down and over”—to learning from, and designing for, children.

How to Save Corporate Modernist Architecture

POST, ex-post office in downtown Houston, restored by OMA. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

A wave of new adaptive reuse projects seek to breathe new life into the suburban office parks and monumental corporate campuses of the 1960s, 1970s and ’80s.

When the Downtown Houston Post Office, Processing, and Distribution Center was completed in 1961, it served as an early exemplar of a monumental approach to design: New Formalism, encouraged by President John F. Kennedy’s “Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture.”

The building stood at the cutting edge of technology: Postmaster Granville Elder predicted a 20% increase in the speed of mail handling for the rapidly expanding Houston region. And it was a workhorse. Renamed in 1984 for Barbara C. Jordan, the first Black congresswoman from the Deep South, the 550,000-square-foot facility continued to do its job until 2015, when it was decommissioned and sold to a local developer as a relic of days when concrete was cheap and “streamlining” was the buzzword of choice. To save it, something major would need to be done.

In 2021, the sprawling concrete building reopened after a dramatic reconfiguration dreamed up by international design firm OMA. Now known as POST, the former Barbara Jordan Post Office has been reborn as a combination event space, food hall and coworking complex. To separate the building’s new uses, OMA carved a series of five atriums out of the building’s facade — a process that the firm imagined, in a photo-illustration, as piercing the building with a giant rake. In the gouges left by that conceptual hoe, the designers collaged in different types of symbolic abundance: a run of glitter, stripes of cauliflower and tomatoes, a river of stone and a literal river.

Sarah Harkness and Jean Fletcher: Architecture, Family Style

Sally Harkness, Jean Fletcher, and their fellow partners in The Architects Collaborative, 1951.

The fifth and final episode of New Angle: Voice, Season 2, takes us to Six Moon Hill, a modernist cul-de-sac in Lexington, Massachusetts, where Sarah (better known as Sally) Harkness, Jean Fletcher, their husbands, and their partners at The Architects Collaborative, tried to build a suburb that could support, not isolate, working women — including themselves.

Read deeper biographies of Sarah Pillsbury Harkness and Jean Bodman Fletcher by Michael Kubo on the Pioneering Women website.

Spheres, Jeers & Cheers: It’s the 2023 Architecture and Design Awards

By Mark Lamster, Alexandra Lange, and Carolina Miranda

The world is a beknighted garbage fire, war is spreading, authoritarianism is on the rise, the climate apocalypse is upon us, everybody hates everybody else, and male architects still can’t keep it in their pants. What are we to do? What we have done every year for the past fourteen consecutive years: pick out the best, worst, and most befuddling in the worlds of architecture and design and then give them fake awards.

And so, with no further ado …

Bad for Architecture Award: The long-sought Gilgo Beach serial killer turns out to be an architect with a New York City practice. Not helping.

Thanks But No Thanks Award: Clients rush to dump David Adjaye following allegations of workplace exploitation, sexual and otherwise.

Kandy-Kolored Streamline Baby Award: The new Terminal E at Boston’s Logan Airport is a cherry-red flying saucer designed by Spanish architect Luis Vidal.

Tom Wolfe Golden Turd of Reactionary BS: Thomas Heatherwick’s whiny, ahistorical screed against modernism is a project nobody needed or wanted. Kind of like the Vessel. And the Garden Bridge.

Teens need malls. Malls need crowds. Why are they pushing kids away?

It’s lunchtime on a rainy Saturday at Westfield Garden State Plaza, New Jersey’s oldest and second-largest shopping mall. The food court is packed, with families in booths, clusters of teens at high-tops, and a long line at Chick-fil-A where Gael, Odell and Katie, teenagers from over the border in New York state, have just bought their food.

Their local mall hosts mostly small businesses, so when Katie had an eye appointment nearby the rest were happy to tag along and check out all that Garden state has to offer. “Aritzia, Pink, I really like the Body Shop,” Katie says; Gael and Odell are in search of Funko-Pops, big-headed collectible figurines, from a favorite anime, Jujutsu Kaisen.

Nearby, eating Wetzel’s Pretzels, sit Adriana and Belle, 13-year-olds who live an hour’s drive away. Belle’s mother drove them and is off shopping on her own for birthday presents; the girls plan to browse Garage, Lululemon, and Sephora. “If something comes along, we will buy it, but we’re not looking for anything,” Belle says. They come every week, laughs Adriana. Belle agrees: “We do come here a lot. My family likes to spend time together, and at home we get bored. So we come to the mall to go to the movies.”

Meet Me by the Fountain in Paperback, Dec. 5

The paperback of Meet Me by the Fountain will be published on December 5! All the same content in a new, more portable package. It makes a very meta holiday gift.

I’ve been doing a bunch of publicity in support of the launch, including this story at Bloomberg CityLab, and radio interviews at Marketplace and Today, Explained.

Was also thrilled to see it on the New York Times Book Review’s recommended Paperback Row.