Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Open With Care (for Nordic Design)

The success of Birchbox, the monthly beauty sample subscription box, has spawned many emulators. There are subscription boxes for nail polish, for organic snacks, for homemade food and handmade items. What there aren’t many of, Ana Denmark, 32, noticed, was a subscription box for housewares, particularly the clean and simple home goods from Scandinavia that she favors. After checking out dozens of boxes in the name of research, Ms. Denmark launched Skandicrush in August, sending out her first $50 package to subscribers in October. Currently running a one-woman, self-financed business, with inventory stored in her stepson’s bedroom (he’s at college), Ms. Denmark hopes to eventually expand the site into e-commerce, so you can get that butter dish after the box is gone. And she has ideas for some other boxes that don’t involve moisturizers or mixed nuts.

Saving Buildings with Social Media

The gap where the Folk Art Museum used to be, 53rd Street.

In David Macaulay’s illustrated book, “Unbuilding,” published in 1980, a sheikh buys the Empire State Building and has it dismantled, piece by piece, to be reassembled in the Middle East. Macaulay uses this premise—which, when I was seven, seemed like science fiction—to illustrate what goes into unmaking a building: the materials, the methods, the fastenings, the layering. It takes a whole book to take a skyscraper down, and that was part of the point. The slowness of the process, the idea that a building can’t just disappear, was a lesson in itself, and one extraneous to the Empire State Building’s significant particulars. Obviously, post-9/11, the fantasy takes on a different resonance.

Today, we don’t need Macaulay’s detailed illustrations to see buildings being unbuilt. We call it “destructoporn” (since 2007, according to Urban Dictionary) and it comes, unbidden, via digital media. Where did I see that Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Folk Art Museum, just thirteen years old, was down to steel and rubble? The art critic Jerry Saltz’s Instagram. How did I follow the destruction of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975), in Chicago, made of poured-in-place concrete that took weeks to demolish last fall? Tweets from the Windy City’s flock of architecture observers. Twitter also brought me the news, in September, of the unbuilding of John Johansen’s Mechanic Theatre (1967), in Baltimore, and a view of the wrecking ball demolishing a hundred-and-twenty-nine-year-old commercial row in Dallas. Unfortunately, except for the copper-bronze façade of the Folk Art Museum, the parts of these buildings aren’t being shipped anywhere except the landfill. No Middle Eastern resurrection to come. Something glassy instead.

Blue is For Blondes

Parents Magazine, July 1970

Recent research on the history of children and color shows that the gender binary (blue is for boys, pink is for girls) is of postwar vintage. Color has been an indicator, in the pint-sized realm, of so many other things. Age, separating the wardrobe of white-dressed infants from the breeched in colored rompers or knickers. Interests, manifested in wallpapers with transportation scenes or Western stampedes. Program, with bright colors in the playroom and soothing hues in the bedroom. Complexion, red for brunettes and blue for blondes. This essay explores a few of those choices, which overlap and interweave rather than advancing toward a color-coded future.

For Saturated Space, I explore the evolution of American children’s colour-space in the 20th century.

“History does change perception.”

In the centre of the first wall of chronology in the new exhibition Michael Graves: Past as Prologue is a little shelf. On that shelf rests a cookie tin decorated to look like his Portland Building (1982). The proportions seem a little off, since the tin is taller than it is wide. In my mind, the Portland Building is a perfect cube, closer to its foreshortened appearance from the sidewalk, and closer to the penciled yellow-trace drawings of facades that were my first introduction to Graves’s work.

In my memory these facade drawings are all squares, made up of triangles and half-rounds, chunky columns and square windows, ideal for transformation into an animated gif of architectural design as an exercise in two-dimensional composition. When Graves took on the Whitney Museum, in 1985, he tried to make Marcel Breuer’s facade into one of those bits, stubbornly stuck in the lower left-hand corner of his pile. But Breuer’s building resists the cookie tin. It would probably tip over. It would look dull on a shelf. While Graves suggests biscotti, Breuer doesn’t seem like a sweet.

A Gordon Bunshaft Top 10

In this morning’s New York Times there was an article about new Hirshhorn Museum director Melissa Chiu and her plans for the museum in our nation’s “staid capital.” Late in the article, Graham Bowley referred to the museum’s “round, nearly windowless building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft.” Now, I took the photo at the top of this post in 2013, so unless they have filled in the wall of windows on the interior of the building’s donut, it certainly has quite a few. I am a fan of both Bunshaft and the building, and I felt the description was inaccurate and did not do the building justice. It is popular to make the Hirshhorn sound too difficult for art, and too many buildings of its era (1974) have recently suffered death by a thousand pinpricks of disdain.

So I wrote to the Times asking for a correction, and this is what they said:

Dear Ms. Lange,

Thanks for taking the time to write.

After consideration, we’re comfortable with our assertion that this building is nearly windowless.

Thanks again for writing, and for reading The Times.

Now, more than two can play that game.

Ted Grunewald pointed out that Ada Louise Huxtable didn’t like it.

But I don’t think of the Hirshhorn as brutalist, but rather as part of Bunshaft’s long exploration of raised geometric shapes. It may be referential, but it is a striking interpretation of modernism in Neo-Classicalland, and has qualities of mystery and discovery that are rare. So I offer my Gordon Bunshaft Top 10, in order of my own discovery, for further exploration.

1. Lever House, New York, 1952. My favorite building in New York. Better than Seagram.

2. Beinecke Library, Yale University, 1963. Almost surreally white, with an incredible amber glow, via translucent stone panels, on the interior.

3. Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, Bloomfield, CT, 1957. The topic of the first chapter of my dissertation, on suburban headquarters. One of the earliest with an all-star design team (Bunshaft, Knoll, Noguchi).

4. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 1962. Just sublime.

5. Manufacturers Hanover Trust, New York, 1954. Now Joe Fresh :(

6. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, 1962. Designed with Walter Netsch, the chapel at the academy is more intricate and experimental than most Bunshaft.

7. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 1974. See above.

8. Marine Midland Building, New York, 1968. Ada Louise likes this one. The Noguchi ‘Red Cube’ out front is also on the cover of my book.

And now, a couple of lost Bunshafts.

9. Travertine House, East Hampton, NY, 1963. Destroyed by Martha Stewart.

10. Emhart Manufacturing Headquarters, Bloomfield, CT, 1963. A Victim of Corporate Vandalism indeed. Connecticut General almost met the same fate.

[Photo credits, top 10: All Ezra Stoller/ESTO except Air Force Academy (Stewarts Commercial Photographers/Pikes Peak Library District); Marine Midland (Francis Dzikowski/Isamu Noguchi Foundation); Travertine House (Adam Bartos).]

Elsa or Else

The New Yorker’s 2014 Halloween cover should look something like this: high angle on a shadowed cul-de-sac, pools of light illuminating the street. In those pools, row after row of tiny Elsas — the heroine of “Frozen” — snowflake crowns glimmering, blue skirts shimmering, hands on hips in Wonder Woman’s power pose. All the other kids, the ghosts and Spider Men, Minecraft Steves and black cats, baby spiders and infant California rolls, are in shadow. Every Halloween has a pop-culture winner, and this year it’s “Frozen.” If your daughter thinks she’ll be the only one singing “Let It Go” at every house, warn her now.

I should know: I tried to get my three-year-old to switch to Sleeping Beauty.


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