Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

2017 in architecture: The good, the bad, and the pink

Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For the eighth consecutive year, Curbed’s own Alexandra Lange and critic Mark Lamster of the Dallas Morning News cover the ups and downs, triumphs, and tragedies of the year in design. If you thought 2016 was hyperbolic, well, you were in for a treat in 2017.

These are dark days in the galaxy. But fear not! Our intrepid critics, the Luke and Leia of architectural criticism, are here, lightsabers drawn, prepared to fight against design evil and restore peace to the urban (and suburban) landscape. Without further ado…

Best Disappearing Act: Apple’s design leadership. From the 11,000-car garage at Apple “Park,” to the company’s claim that stores are “town squares,” the behemoth has lost the plot.

Honk Twice for Sustainability Award: Meanwhile, Toyota dumped plans for their own LEED-rated Texas headquarters in suburbia, with 6,500 parking spaces and effectively zero public transit.

Biggest Disco Ball: Jean Nouvel’s webby, pattern-making dome for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Good on the critics who visited for not letting the glitter distract from the country’s exploitative labor practices.

Continues: Curbed

Apple Park: The one that got away

Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park, photo by Recode's Dan Frommer from September 2017.

If I were allowed to visit Apple Park, the first thing I would do is take off my shoes.

In the most famous photographs of Steve Jobs, he sits, shoeless and cross-legged, on the hardwood floor of his Menlo Park bungalow, lit by the glow of a Tiffany lamp. The implication is simultaneously that he is above material things and that only the best will do. Why have an ugly sofa for the sake of having a sofa? Particularly when you have such a nice floor.

Barefoot, you feel the world through your feet. You are far more connected to texture, to transition, to temperature, without resorting to running your fingers along a wall, or leaving sweaty handprints on pristine surfaces.

Apple Park, so they say, has been designed to be seamless: the office building is a circle; the Hilltop Theater, a glass cylinder; the four-story, 440,000 pound glass doors slide noiselessly; a white-tile tunnel takes you to your car. Once you’re inside, nothing should interrupt your progress or disrupt the view. Glass fins protect the glass walls from unsightly streaking.

The triumph of Apple Park, it would seem, is in these obsessive details, which elevate it above the common sorrows of architecture (that concrete pour that went wonky, that threshold that won’t lie flat) and into the realm of product design. Small things can be perfect, big things cannot, they are just too much. Unless, it seems, you have the money of Jobs.

In 2017, I wanted to experience this mirage for myself. But so far, Apple has let in journalists only to ooh and aah, not to pick or contextualize. They want you to admire the glass back of the new iPhone 8 but not drop it.

Continues: Curbed

NYC Best New Architecture of 2017

American Copper Buildings from under the FDR Drive, December 11, 2017.

Did you know that what the skyline needed was a cross between all-in 1960s corporate branding, the Downtown Athletic Club as described by Rem Koolhaas and a lair worthy of Goldfinger? I didn’t, but it did, which is why SHoP’s fraternal-twin, 761-unit rental towers are our 2017 Building of the Year.

We’ve been watching for some time as the copper-clad north and south sides of the two towers, zigzagging within their ho-hum zoning envelopes, rose. First, they were as shiny as copper pennies, then they went dark and streaks appeared, including a stripe of verdigris. “Eventually the whole thing will be Statue of Liberty green,” says SHoP principal Gregg Pasquarelli. “We thought of it as a performance art piece viewed from the FDR Drive.” While other Jenga-inspired skyscrapers already seem old hat, these can still surprise us.

Continues: Curbed

No loitering, no skateboarding, no baggy pants

"Dreams & Nightmares" from Park Powers, 2016-7. Courtesy Hector Urban Design, Planning and Civic Arts.

Sometimes it seems like there is nowhere for teens to be.
Here’s what they are doing about it.

Harold Ickes Playground doesn’t look like much: a paved ballfield atop the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, surrounded by a chain-link fence., One of its closest neighbors is the Brooklyn Tesla dealership, and it is prone to winds off the waterfront. But to high school students from Red Hook Initiative’s youth organizing group, it was perfect.

Two years ago, they decided Red Hook needed a skate park—but without a location, the idea went nowhere. One year ago, they surveyed the parks in the neighborhood, and picked Harold Ickes as their spot. Having solved one problem, another reared its head: the build-out would cost $3 million, far more than the average participatory budgeting project.

“We went to [Councilman] Carlos Menchaca and asked him, What can we do to get the skate park funded?” says group member John Texidor, now 20. “He said he would be willing to give $1 million if participatory budgeting is willing to give $1M—[and then he’d go] to Brad Lander and ask him to give $1 million. All we have to do is get signatures to show that we want the park.” Texidor and his teenage compatriots eventually collected 800 signatures from their neighbors.

“They would ask, ‘What do we need a skate park for? We need a supermarket!’ They could be very close-minded about it,” says Texidor.” I had to explain to them it is not only for kids, it is for adults. It could be a hangout spot.”

Continues: Curbed

The Slide-Show Epiphanies of Vincent Scully

Vincent Scully in 1966. (Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post)

My abiding mental image of Vincent Scully is seeing him stand at the front of the Yale Law School auditorium, a great wood-panelled room to which his course, History of Art 112a, had been moved because it had long outgrown the spatial resources of the art-history or architecture departments. He stood before us, craggy and tweedy, and beat the screen with a wooden pointer, making the silvery fabric billow. What was he mad about?

Nothing but architecture, whose effects roused him, year after year, to peaks of emotion. The low entryways and subsequent spatial release of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style houses. The thick, compressed columns of Frank Furness’s Philadelphia façades. The dramatic peak of McKim, Mead & White’s Low House, a caricature of the gables sheltering the American dream. The drama of what might, to others, have looked like just a bunch of brown buildings was the drama that launched his career.

Continues: New Yorker

These are the best scissors I’ve ever owned

Fiskars Softgrip 8-inch scissors.

My grandmother had a room in her house that we were not allowed to enter. It was just off the kitchen, and she would go in and out of it at various points during the day, whether to dress, to fetch a gift, or to get the right tool for a project. It wasn’t locked, but we knew it was her room and I never even tried the latch.

I thought of her room recently, wistfully, when I could not find my good scissors. They are supposed to rest in the middle drawer of my desk, beneath my thicket of screens. I use them for opening book packages and slicing through wrapping paper, cutting my kids’ hair or scalloping an edge.

When I need them, they should be there, sleek and sharp, and they were not. I had to borrow my husband’s giant-handled scissors and gave myself a blister. I gave my son a trim with the kitchen shears and it showed. I tried miniature kid scissors on packing tape, which caused a tangle.

Continues: Curbed