Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Learning from Milan

AUGUST is a new journal on design and travel, started by Dung Ngo, with each issue dedicated to a specific city. When I had coffee with Dung in November, he told me the first issue, just released, would be about Milan. My family lived in Milan for seven months when I was 13 (my parents were on sabbatical), and I’ve always felt that that time in a historic city, with a duomo and public transportation and stylish shops, turned me into an urban person.

For the first issue, I wrote a short memoir of my time there, and what I learned at Fiorucci, Benetton and Naj-Oleari. It’s not online yet, but I will update when it is.

Continues: AUGUST

In the Second Avenue Subway, art and architecture are at odds

Vik Muniz’s “Perfect Strangers” at the 72nd Street station. Photo by Max Touhey.

Architect Harry Weese’s first Metro design presentation to the Washington, D.C., Commission of Fine Arts in April 1967 did not go well. Commission member Eero Saarinen called the exposed granite sidewalls of Weese’s design for the system’s deepest stations—rumpled and craggy, inspired by several in Stockholm—“Hansel and Gretel.” Commission member Gordon Bunshaft described them as “folk art” and the overall look as “a refined coal mine shaft.”

At subsequent meetings, the commission pushed back on Weese’s desire to express the different station configurations (exposed, tunnel, cut-and-cover) through varied interior design. Rather than fairy tales, they wanted something in the “spirit of the classical style,” as Saarinen put it. According to historian Kathleen Murphy Skolnik:

Halfway through the two-hour meeting, Bunshaft, attempting to illustrate what the commission wanted, turned over one of Weese’s presentation boards and sketched a vaulted design similar to one initially submitted by Weese… Weese refrained from pointing out the similarity between the two and instead praised Bunshaft’s concept as “a pretty exciting thing.” Former Weese employees involved in the project credit Bunshaft with saving Weese’s vision for the grand vaulted spaces that are the dominant feature of the Washington Metro system.

I had cause to reflect on the D.C. Metro—and look up its origin story—after two visits to the first four stations of the Second Avenue Subway, which opened January 1, 2017. The extension of the Q line is already popular, the stations are spacious and clean, and the MTA is justifiably proud of public art installations by Jean Shin, Vik Muniz, Chuck Close, and Sarah Sze in each of the new stations. But I could tell, just by looking at it, that the process had been very different from that of the Metro, just as the photos one takes in the Metro are very different from the snippets of Second Avenue showing up on Instagram.

Continues: Curbed

From Japanese Internment Camps to Mid-Century Modern

Alexandra Lange, architecture critic for Curbed, joins us to discuss her story, The forgotten history of Japanese-American designers’ World War II internment: Revisiting the link between detention and design history, 75 years after FDR’s executive order. The story investigates the connection between how Japanese-American designers and architects, who were huge influences on mid-century modern American architecture, were influenced by their time in American detention camps during World War II.

Lange will be joined by Dakin Hart, senior curator at the Noguchi Museum and the curator of the recent exhibit Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center.

“Abstract: The Art of Design”: Netflix series is fast, funny, and without critique

Courtesy of Netflix.

Forget Woody Allen (if you haven’t already), illustrator Christoph Niemann is here to represent the urban neurotic creative. With pictures! Niemann is one of eight subjects of the new Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, which premieres February 10.

Niemann’s episode gives him the screen as his sketchbook to talk about his process, to play with Legos, to explain the very concept of abstraction via an animated “Abstract-O-Meter.” He feels less like a documentary subject than director Morgan Neville’s collaborator (or maybe hijacker), willing himself into and out of situations as a grown-up Harold with a purple crayon.

Abstract brings newfangled technology to the age-old task of explaining what designers do. It’s delightful to see so much money thrown at people who, almost unanimously, think best with a pen and a pad of paper.

Continues: Curbed

The forgotten history of Japanese-American designers’ World War II internment

On January 18, 1963, architect Minoru Yamasaki appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, his disembodied head floating amidst the neo-Gothic tracery, delicate tenting, and flower-shaped fountains of his own design. The occasion was Yamasaki’s commission to plan the then-$270-million World Trade Center. The commission was made controversial, in the words of the TIME feature, by the contrast between the “dreadful flaws” critics found in the work of the “wiry, 132-lb. Nisei,” and the pleasure his work gave to the public with its “declaration of independence from the machine-made monotony of so much modern architecture.” Yamasaki’s aim was to please the eye, avoiding both the ubiquitous glass box and the Corbusian concrete tower, TIME said, while assuring its readers that the “humble,” “courteous” architect had a core that was “all steel.”

The roots of Yamasaki’s toughness lay both in his stylistic battle for pleasure and delight—traced through details of his trips to India’s Taj Mahal, Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, and Kyoto’s Katsura Palace—and in a lifetime of discrimination. Yamasaki grew up in a wooden tenement less than two miles from the Century 21 Exposition grounds in Seattle; moved to New York after receiving his architecture degree, having seen top Japanese-American graduates passed over for jobs; and sent for his parents after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor to save them from being interned. Yamasaki, his new wife Teruko, his brother, and his parents all shared a three-room apartment in Yorkville for the duration of World War II.

Back in Seattle, Yamasaki’s father had been fired from his 30-year job at a shoe store after the bombing. The architect’s New York employer, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, designers of the Empire State Building, took the opposite tack. TIME presents this as a bootstrap narrative for Yamasaki: “You are one of our best men,” the magazine quotes Richmond Shreve, “and I’m going to back you all the way.”

Continues: Curbed

What is Late Modernism?

Citicorp Center, Hugh Stubbins and Associates (1978). Courtesy Norman McGrath.

And why you should care.

If non-architects know the Citicorp Center—New York’s youngest landmark when designated at 38—they know it for its flaw. Shortly after its completion in 1978, a student called the office of its engineer, William J. LeMessurier, and asked about the four 24-foot-square, 100-foot-tall “super” columns, unusually positioned at the center of each of the skyscraper’s facades, that help to hold the building up.

In designing the building’s innovative structural system, LeMessurier had correctly calculated the strength of the wind hitting each face of the building straight on, but had failed to reckon with the extra strain of the “quartering” winds which hit the building’s cantilevered corners. In responding to the student’s questions, he realized he had made a mistake—one compounded by the substitution of bolted structural joints for welded ones, which are much stronger. By his calculations, a storm strong enough to topple the building hits the city every 55 years.

Continues: Curbed