I’m not mad at the Lowline any more. I was, for years, as I saw the same trippy renderings and the phrase “world’s first underground park” bounce around the internet pinball machine and never, ever exit. It seemed unstoppable as Kickstarter urbanism, meme-tecture, and the infrastructural sublime, with the added bonus of a High Line founder as board member and Lena Dunham as fundraiser.
It was a lot, especially for a project that is quite small: 50,000 square feet, underneath Delancey Street, adjacent to the J train. Until July, its founders didn’t technically even claim the space. Those dreamer-creator-founders, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, haven’t had real access to the site for years. But now, the Lowline has been selected by New York City’s Economic Development Corporation as designated developer for that subterranean acre and there’s a chance that the dream might become real.
Where once the campus amenities arms race was waged over luxury dorms and recreation facilities, now colleges and universities are building deluxe structures for the generation of wonderful ideas. They and their partners in industry are pouring millions into new buildings for business, engineering and applied learning that closely resemble the high-tech workplace, itself inspired by the minimally partitioned spaces of the garage and the factory.
If the Silicon Valley creation myth starts in Steve Jobs’s garage (now a designated historic site), the creation myth on campuses starts at M.I.T.’s Building 20. That warren of D.I.Y. offices, allocated to researchers from across the university, produced, through proximity, many breakthrough encounters in its 50-plus years. The building was demolished in 1998, replaced with Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, one of the first campus structures that tries to recreate Building 20’s creative ferment.
What architects take from Building 20 is not its ramshackle aesthetic — though some believe less polish provides more freedom — but the importance of mixing disciplines, of work performed out in the open, and of transition zones like hallways and staircases as sites for productive run-ins.
Though studies have shown that proximity and conversation can produce creative ideas, there’s little research on the designs needed to facilitate the process. Still, there are commonalities.
In many of the new buildings, an industrial look prevails, along with an end to privacy. You are more likely to find a garage door and a 3-D printer than book-lined offices and closed-off classrooms, more likely to huddle with peers at a round table than go to a lecture hall with seats for 100. Seating is flexible, ranging from bleachers to sofas, office chairs to privacy booths. Furniture is often on wheels, so that groups can rearrange it. (The Institute of Design at Stanford, a model for many, has directions for building a whiteboard z-rack on its website.)
When startup accelerator Y Combinator announced its New Cities project in June, it came with a couple of footnotes. Number one was, “Two out of three people will live in cities by 2050.”
In the center of the cover of the 2006 book The Endless City, published by the Urban Age Project at the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank, is the statistic, “10% lived in cities in 1900, 50% is living in cities in 2007, 75% will be living in cities in 2050.”
On the header of the TED Cities page, “More than half the world’s population lives in cities.”
Problem is, these numbers aren’t real. Or rather, without a radical disruption of United Nations data collection methods—the 50 percent number comes from a 2007 UN agency report—we will never know whether half the population, or two-thirds, lives in a city. Not now, and not in 2050.
An interview with the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator of architecture and design, Martino Stierli.
Alexandra Lange There have been a lot of recent articles about whether museums should start buying famous houses. What do you think about that, given that you’ve done a lot of work on Robert Venturi and one of the houses that particularly gets mentioned in this context is the Vanna Venturi House?
Martino Stierli There are two answers. My personal answer is that I would be thrilled if we had houses in the collection; a place like MoMA has a historic responsibility towards preserving. John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein House in Los Angeles was just given to LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], so I’m a bit jealous. At the same time, the idea is very problematic. Firstly, by putting houses in this context you’re taking away their original function as a home for a family or whatever and transforming them into a mere display space. They lose something. Another problem is that if a museum enforces collecting something like this, then you create a market. That’s problematic.
In January 1960, my grandfather, a graphic designer and special assistant for Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center, wrote to Restaurant Associates, requesting samples of the printed matter created by Emil Antonucci for their recently-opened Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building.
Cleaning out his studio more than 50 years later, my mother discovered the long envelope RA sent back, chock-full of graphic goodies featuring Antonucci’s elegant hand-drawn line of trees: round pink buds for spring, fat green leaves for summer, spiky red boughs for fall, and stark brown branches for winter. Below, in Chisel capitals, THE FOUR SEASONS, like the stone plaza beneath a line of Dan Kiley saplings.
Because my grandfather wrote to them in winter, the oversize lunch and dinner menus inside feature the winter tree, printed hand-size and looking as if it was painted on the rice-paper cover with a broad, flat Japanese brush. Anontucci’s graphics combine the rough with the smooth, serving, as the potted plants and the Richard Lippold sculpture and Fortuny-clad powder room did, to soften the hard edges of Philip Johnson and William Pahlmann’s modernist interior.
I mention the matchbooks and coat check, menus and place card, stationery and cocktail napkins not to tell you that my career as design historian often feels like a research project into the lives my grandparents lived, but to point out that this ephemera was seen as worth writing away for in 1960, and seen as worth saving for 50 years. And it is perhaps the least famous element of the Four Seasons restaurant design. What will be sold in Wright’s July 26 auction are many more famous items, from custom brass-topped Eero Saarinen tables to the silver-plated footed bread bowls designed by L. Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable, each as considered as Antonucci’s trees.
Ray Eames also understood housewifery as part, though far from all, of her and Charles’s design practice, as historian Pat Kirkham argues in an essay in a new book on the famous design couple. “Ray enjoyed nurturing through hospitality, and her ‘at home’ performances blurred the boundaries between her roles as wife, friend, and artist, designer and filmmaker with Charles,” Kirkham writes in The World of Charles and Ray Eames (Rizzoli), a catalog which accompanies a recent retrospective at the Barbican in London. Other essays in the lushly illustrated tome cover their films, their dress, their multi-media exhibitions, and, in architect Sam Jacob’s contribution, their “California-ness.”
Ray was luckier than many working women of her day, in that she could call upon her workplace for help. “Before the arrival of friends for an ‘informal’ evening at home, Ray, like a stage manager, art director, or production designer, would oversee a small Eames Office team assigned to preparing the house for the coming performance of hospitality.”
She would orchestrate the arrangement of objects, the plumping of pillows, and the burning of candles to specific lengths. Food was generally simply prepared but of high quality, with a focus on arrangement of fruit, cheese, breads, and chocolate on dishes selected by Ray.