Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Finding Julia Morgan

“Why aren’t women in the history books?”

Since 2002, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation has worked to remedy this egregious omission, through research, creating websites, making short films, and now … a podcast. Welcome to New Angle: Voice.

I’ve been fascinated by Julia Morgan since I wrote this profile of her for the New York Times Overlooked series and contributed to a new online biography. It was an honor and a pleasure to serve as editorial advisor for this new podcast series, which launched last week with Episode 1, Finding Julia Morgan.

Subscribe and listen to New Angle: Voice now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, on Google Podcasts, and the BWAF website.

How To Remember Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers

Minoru Yamasaki and a model for the College of Education Building at Wayne State University / Bettman via Getty Images.

In the 1990s, there was no New York City skyline without the Twin Towers. They hobnobbed with Lady Liberty and the Empire State Building on any souvenir plate or T-shirt. They flanked Superman or supported King Kong on movie posters. They were such markers of Manhattan as to be critic-proof.

The centrality and iconicity that made the World Trade Center a target — the biggest buildings in the biggest city in the U.S., two for one — gave many a focus for tributes in the wake of their destruction, 20 years ago, on Sept. 11. From memorial flowers and candles on the Brooklyn Promenade overlooking their absence, to calls for rebuilding, to the twin searchlight beams of the Tribute in Light, to the eventual form of Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s 9/11 Memorial — where the towers’ exact footprints are rendered as eternal voids — the Twin Towers were celebrated as symbols of strength.

But it wasn’t always this way. Both the towers and their architect, Minoru Yamasaki, were criticized upon their completion, with racist and misogynist language dogging their Japanese American designer. The Twin Towers, which at first seemed a career-making commission, ultimately sabotaged Yamasaki’s career and confidence, their long double shadow putting everything he designed after 1973 in the shade.

A Bunch of MOTHERS!

Grace Jones in Jean-Paul Goude's Constructivist Maternity Dress; New York, 1979.

This week marks the publication of Designing Motherhood edited by Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick. I was honored to be asked to contribute a foreword to this groundbreaking collaborative publication and exhibition on the design of all aspects of becoming (and not becoming) a mother. You can read my text as well as an interview with the curators at Design Miami.

“There is nobody against this—NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of . . . a bunch of MOTHERS!” Waiting for his turn to speak at a hearing about the city’s plans to run a divided roadway through Washington Square Park in New York, parks commissioner Robert Moses had heard enough. Although Jane Jacobs and Shirley Hayes, the chief organizers of the Greenwich Village group that had arranged photogenic picket lines of children opposing the loss of their play space, had yet to have their say, Moses was incredulous that they might prevail. Despite his close study of the levers of power, he had failed to consider how those traditionally considered the weakest—women and children—might win a public relations battle. They did so by transforming a subject, motherhood, that women were by their nature supposed to know best from a private concern to a public one, moving it from the home to the streets.

Their protest described an arc that is repeated again and again in the design objects whose stories are told in Designing Motherhood. This arc connects the personal to the political, the interior to the city, and transforms us versus them to, in the end, simply us—because we all arrive here via some process of birth and, at some point and in some way, we all mother. The designs in this book go beyond binaries and biology.

Department Stores Reborn in a Post-Pandemic World

Illustration by Sam Island.

About 40% of U.S. department store outlets have closed over the past five years. Many of the large, boxy structures that house them, where prom dresses were purchased and perfume sampled, will be demolished. But some will be put to new uses.

Why repurpose department stores, the supposed white elephants of the retail world? Property owners and designers are becoming aware of the cost savings and environmental benefits of adapting older buildings rather than tearing them down. Beyond that, many urban department stores have high-quality historic architecture, prime downtown locations, big lower-floor windows, and lots of open floor space. Suburban stores are often plain and windowless; inside, however, they have the same large floor plates, as well as key locations near highway interchanges. (No wonder some stores have been converted to temporary Covid testing and vaccination sites.)

“The big urban question of the 1980s and 1990s was what to do with former industrial areas of all of our major cities,” says Owen Hopkins, director of the Farrell Centre, a research hub for architecture and planning at Newcastle University in England. In the 2020s, he says, it’s “What can we do with post-retail spaces?”

In a Warming World, Consider the Mist Garden

Mist Garden by Quennell Rothschild & Partners in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens. Photo by Ismail Ferdous/Bloomberg.

When the Unisphere made its debut at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, the stainless-steel representation of the planet was surrounded by a turquoise pool and rings of powerful water jets, whose leaping plumes echoed the curves of the globe. Radiating from that central basin were the Fountains of the Fairs, including a 310-foot-long stepped pool initially surrounded by bands of colorful flowers.

The visual and aural effect of this waterfall fountain was dramatic, even symphonic: The constant sound of flowing water followed fairgoers as they explored the pavilions along the paths radiating from the Unisphere. This feature was also high maintenance. By the 1970s, the flow had been turned off, and even a pump repair in the early 2000s proved short-lived.

In the summer of 2021, the water at the Fountain of the Fairs finally got turned back on — not as falls, but as fog. Fog is an atmospheric effect that has shown itself to be environmentally responsible, ephemerally beautiful and large-scale spectacular in artists’ hands many times before.

Flushing Meadows-Corona Park’s $6.8 million “mist garden” was the result of input from the Queens communities that live near the park, New York City’s fourth-largest, as well as shifting priorities for the city. The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation was looking for a water feature designed for cooling off, rather than decoration, that would also conform to the city’s new usage restrictions of no more than 25 gallons per minute. A water feature that would delight, but also be visually strong enough to stand up to the 140-foot-tall Unisphere.

That Cardboard Bed Was Supposed to Be a Utopia

Yes, you can have athletic sex in a cardboard bed. The rumor that the cursed COVID Olympics in Tokyo was promoting celibacy through flimsy furniture has since been debunked, but that doesn’t mean that those beds aren’t worthy of further scrutiny. It’s not their material that’s weak but the design ambition behind them. Stylish temporary architecture has been a hallmark of Olympic Games past — just look at Los Angeles in 1984, where construction scaffolding became enchanting Pop villages — but these boxy furniture pieces read as designed for forgettability, not engineered to give bodies under stress the best rest.

Why build another box when, since the 1960s, cardboard dreamers have demonstrated that the material can bend, curve and roll, much like the Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan, who went viral on Twitter jumping on one of said beds to disprove its anti-sex reputation? Why build something in white or brown when they could be red, yellow, or blue or have polka dots or Olympic rings?

Once upon a time, cardboard was going to save us all from conformity. “Those beds are pretty basic,” says Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, and the curator of the 2015-2016 Walker Art Center exhibition Hippie Modernism, which showcased some of the weirdest and wildest experiments in temporary living environments of the 1960s. “The Olympic Village is doing it for ecological reasons, and that’s the funny thing. The 1960s stuff was supposed to reflect a new modern lifestyle — it was supposed to be longer-lasting rather than just tossed away after use.” Cardboard attracted attention back then because of its ubiquity as first a byproduct of, and then a design problem produced by, the postwar culture of consumption. Cardboard was lightweight, it was portable, and it lent itself to D.I.Y. and customization. Giving boxes a second life in the home was a positive tweak to throwaway culture.

The Urbanist: The Summer of Play

Quadra by Serena Confalonieri, Milan.

I spoke to Andrew Tuck, host of Monocle’s weekly show The Urbanist, for an episode on the so-called Summer of Play: How can we design our streets to encourage play and give young people back the summer that was lost to the global pandemic?

Realized play projects including Milan’s Piazze Aperte and Hong Kong’s Ocean Park are also highlighted.

The Lesson of Little Island: Less Is More

An aerial nighttime view of Little Island park on June 14, 2021. Noam Galai/Getty.

The architecture critics have already called Little Island “a charmer” and “a handmade Eden.” The new $260 million park just off Manhattan’s west side has been praised for its concrete “tulips,” its amphitheater, and its lush and colorful plantings.

But however beautiful the park is at this point, a moment when the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming and New York City is reopening, there’s a price to be paid for building what a billionaire wants.

As part of the arrangement between media mogul Barry Diller — the prime mover behind the park’s design and development — and the Hudson River Park Trust, the Diller–von Furstenberg Family Foundation has to pay for maintenance and programming costs for the next 20 years, a figure that Diller estimated could add another $120 million. Even if 20 years seems far away now, that’s still a big question mark for the future in a city which invests less in parks than many of its peers.

When New York City parks have long received 0.5% of the city’s budget, and lost $84 million to austerity measures in 2020, Little Island sets a terrible example. It is not gated, but it might as well be, given how complicated, how high-maintenance and how bossy it can be. While it may be Barry Diller’s ideal park, it doesn’t line up with the needs or expectations (or budget) of most of the 8 million plus New Yorkers, many of whom don’t have access to private outdoor space and need room to walk, play, party and sprawl. Sometimes spending less can do more when funders ask their designers to lay out the welcome mat … and then walk away.

How AOC turns a weekend hike into a powerful message

Ndubisi Okoye / For The Times

On the first weekend in May, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went backpacking. According to an Instagram story posted from the trail, the Democratic congresswoman took up hiking in January, soon after the attack on the Capitol, during which her office was targeted by rioters forcing her to hide in the bathroom — an experience she later described as “trauma.”

“Last weekend, a lot of you asked … how I take time off, how I care for myself, which I appreciate the question,” she says in the video, speaking to the camera with blue sky behind her and a pack on her back. Then she turns the phone to show the larger scene: a large, flat-rock outcropping with the landscape falling away behind. “This is one way, we started backpacking right here in New York.”

On Cultural Criticism, Teenagers, and Shopping Malls

Takino Suzuran Hillside National Park / @langealexandra

Thanks to the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Design and Jayna Zweiman for this long interview about my work, how I pick topics, and what a kid agenda in politics might look like.

I’ve read your work in The New Yorker, Curbed, and what seems a million other places over the years, but I didn’t put it together that it was always you. Looking at your body of work, it makes so much sense. I am interested in the arc of your work, how you choose what you research, and the power and importance of being a critic.

Somebody who wasn’t as familiar with my work asked me that a few days ago and we ended up talking about this word “magpie.” I see myself as kind of a magpie. I do think that there’s a through-line to everything I do. And it’s interesting that you see it because I’m not always understanding it when I’m doing it. The mall book is such a great example of that. I feel like it was a perfect topic for me because it’s a really capacious topic. There are so many different ways to look at a mall. That turns out to be a common ground of all the topics that I pick: that it’s not just about one building or one architect. It’s about the relationships between all the different people that make a building. It’s also about the relationship of that building to culture.

Different chapters of the book are more about urban planning or more about architecture, and there’s one that’s mostly about movies, photography, and fiction. All of those things are tied to the mall, the mall in our general imagination. I like topics that let me pretend to be a literary critic and let me be a movie critic, along with being an architecture critic.