Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Why SOM’s modernist Union Carbide building is worth saving

Union Carbide Building (1960), Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Photograph by Ezra Stoller / ESTO.

Does it feel like I am always yelling at you that this plaza from 1968, or that building from 1983, must be saved? It feels like that to me, because I am, because the architecture that makes New York great, giving it variety, texture, and some generosity amid the towers, is constantly under threat.

I was genuinely shocked to wake up yesterday and read that the Union Carbide Building (1960), designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and occupying prime real estate on Park Avenue just north of the Pan Am Building (1963), was going to be torn down to build an even bigger skyscraper.

Principally, I was surprised that the Union Carbide Building wasn’t a designated landmark. The bureaucracy and strategy required to get buildings landmarked in New York too often means that advocates are playing defense, and the building under immediate attack gets the attention.

Union Carbide, however, is a superlative example of what Ada Louise Huxtable named “The Park Avenue School of Architecture” in 1957: sleek, shiny buildings that to her seemed like the city shaking off masonry, somnolence, the past, and marching up Park into the future. “In a surprise shift,” she wrote, “elegance has moved from domestic to professional life, from the apartment house to the office building.”

Continues: Curbed

Malls and the future of American retail

Rendering of City Center Bishop Ranch by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Sunset Development Company.

This fall, a 300,000-square-foot shopping mall will open in suburban northern California, built around a landscaped outdoor courtyard inspired by an Italian piazza.

The first floor is all glass, the better to see the wares; above that, corrugated stainless steel. An Equinox gym anchors the mall at one end, a dine-in movie theater anchors the other. You can drink boba tea or a Berkeley microbrew, slurp ramen, or down a burger.

From the rooftop parking garage, visitors can look down on the piazza—“it is a sweet climate” says its European architect—or out to the surrounding hills. “I don’t want to be nasty to shopping malls,” he adds, in a promotional video for the shopping mall. “I just want to say, this is not a shopping mall, it is something completely different. Instead of something artificial, we need to make something very California.”

In March 1954, a 990,000-square-foot shopping mall opened in suburban Detroit, built around landscaped outdoor courtyards, inspired by Italian piazzas. The first floor was all glass, the better to see the wares; above that, brick panels framed in concrete. A Hudson’s department store anchored the center. You could get a bite at the snack bar or candy store, or shop for dinner at the supermarket while your kids worked up an appetite at the playground.

Continues: Curbed

Why postmodernism is the palate cleanser we need

AT&T Building, designed by Philip Johnson. LIFE Images Collection / Getty Collection.

Around the time I was putting this column together in my head, the new owners of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1984 AT&T Building decided to take a wrecking ball to the building’s lobby, with its inlaid black-and-white floor, circuit of round arches, and intricate brass elevator doors. While the exterior of the building is being considered for landmark designation, the lobby (which I thought of as an inside-out palazzo) was fair game.

It was made vulnerable, as interiors so often are, by an earlier renovation that robbed AT&T of its most interesting spatial effect: the hollowed-out loggia at the base of the top-heavy highboy. Johnson loved spindly arrays of columns, stretching them like taffy in his city hall for Celebration, Florida. His idea of the public realm, at least on narrow Madison Avenue, was softening the sharp street corners with arches and providing a base through which people could flow.

That was a quirky idea, especially when coupled with the opulence of the lobby, where the sculpture “Golden Boy” once pointed skyward, with lightning bolts. I had been hoping against hope that the owners, and renovation architect Snøhetta, would see the lobby as I did: as an experiment with materials, space and art more distinctive than their proffered Scandi-adjacent discourse on light and air. Midtown has plenty of brightly lit, forward-facing, gridded lobbies. What it has precious little of is drama—or texture.

Continues: Curbed

The women designers who made Herman Miller furniture shine

Tomoko Miho for Herman Miller. Courtesy Herman Miller.

There’s a famous Herman Miller ad, designed by George Tscherny in 1954, that shows the furniture brand’s marquee designers as “Traveling Men.” George Nelson, leaning against a trunk, is heading to Germany at the behest of the government. Charles Eames, looking at a map, is journeying to Japan. And Alexander Girard, pith helmet at the ready, is off to India to collect material for a Museum of Modern Art exhibit.

Those men—plus later colleagues and collaborators like Robert Propst (inventor of the cubicle), Irving Harper (the Sunburst clock) and Steve Frykholm (those mouthwatering picnic posters—spurred our long love affair with the midcentury version of the brand.

But new material from the Herman Miller archives complicates and expands the narrative of three (or six) male superstars. An article published earlier this week on the AIGA’s Eye on Design site, The Lesser-told Stories of the Women Who Shaped Herman Miller, surfaces less familiar names Peggy Ann Rohde, Tomoko Miho, Barbara Loveland and Linda Powell, along with Deborah Sussman, better known for her sizzling graphics for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Meg Miller’s article includes lots of great examples of their work; a few additional goodies are shown here.

Continues: Curbed

Design within reach

Simple Music Player, 2014. Designed by Lyndon Owen, Maurice Thompson and Bruce Barnet. Courtesy Cooper Hewitt.

The Cooper-Hewitt’s latest exhibition clarifies why accessible design is not a privilege, but a right

They don’t call it a radio, because who has a radio anymore? Yet the brick-like shape; the round, cloth-covered speaker; and the two oversized controls say “radio” to anyone born in the first half of the 20th century.

Even if you have dementia, you can see the box on a countertop, say, and intuitively know that it plays music. And if you touch the box, you’ll find only two possible actions: Press the oblong button (nothing happens) or lift the lid on top.

Voila! Music.

Continues: Curbed

8 buildings we think should get the AIA’s 25-year award

Michael Graves's Humana building (r) in Louisville, Kentucky. Thomas Kelley / Alamy Stock Photo.

Here’s what Curbed editors would have nominated

There are so many ways the AIA 25-Year Award could have gone this year: supporting threatened postmodernism, amplifying diverse voices, expanding the award’s geography.

But instead, the award jury chose not to choose, rejecting the submissions as (reading between the lines) either too populist or too inside baseball. May we humbly suggest that the AIA get more aggressive about soliciting nominations—or that the jury members might have made some late submissions themselves?

Continues: Curbed