Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Design competitions won’t solve your city’s problems

Illustration by Alyssa Nassner.

Written with Alissa Walker

At the end of last year, New York City’s sanitation department announced the winner of an 18-month competition to design a “next generation” litter basket. The winning design of the BetterBin contest is a nice-enough-looking metal-and-plastic receptacle by Group Design, intended to be lighter, more durable, and better defended against illegal dumping of household trash.

But if you walk the streets of New York City, you’ll see an array of trash can designs, from stylish to utilitarian, already competently gathering the city’s refuse. The real problem is not poorly designed trash cans making corners messy, but the adjacent sidewalks being blocked by piles of plastic bags awaiting curbside collection—a problem that might be better addressed by moving garbage out of pedestrian thoroughfares.

If local leaders truly want to get trash off the streets, they might give residents a better way to dispose of their household waste, including the many models made for sorting recyclables that are found on every corner in numerous European cities. They might also take a closer look at the city’s trash collection system, which has long suffered from corruption and safety problems. Can New York City’s litter be so different that no existing product or policy can address the mess? Does any city really need to reinvent the trash can?

The decade in architecture: The good, the bad, and the capitalism

Illustration by Alyssa Nassner.

Ten years ago, we had an idea. What if awards weren’t so boring? What if you got a prize not for being the best but for being the most? What if the black-clad masses of the design world could laugh at themselves? And lo, we began our own awards cycle, first at Design Observer and then here at Curbed, making up the prizes and handing them out. And now here we are at the end of the misbegotten decade, and we must ask: What exactly did it all come to, and who is responsible?

Below, we revisit our past prizes, pairing our initial write-ups with new commentary that reflects on the original award and how, if at all, our views have changed. These are the highlights of the last 10 sodden years, the ups and downs (mostly downs) as our culture and politics shriveled into a polarized narcissistic frenzy headed for climatic destruction. Enjoy!

Transformed by Mexico, Six Women Broke Barriers Between Art and Design

Anni Albers, “Study for Camino Real,” 1967. Courtesy Albers Foundation/ARS, New York.

They lived or worked in Mexico from the 1930s through the 1970s. Some were friends, some mentors, some colleagues. But all of their work, ranging from photography to furniture to weaving to sculpture, was transformed by their time there.

The exhibition “In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury,” simply but beautifully presented at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, highlights the work of six women: the Cuban-born Clara Porset, the Mexican Lola Álvarez Bravo, the German émigré Anni Albers, and the Americans Ruth Asawa, Cynthia Sargent and Sheila Hicks (who at 85 is still actively working with fibers).

Politics affected the geographic and artistic trajectories of all six, but they also influenced the curatorial decision to make the exhibition about many women rather than one.

“In the beginning people said, ‘Why don’t you do a show on Clara Porset?’” Zoe Ryan, the lead curator, said. Ms. Ryan, who worked with the consulting curator Ana Elena Mallet and the research assistant Valentina Sarmiento Cruz, added, “We have tried hard to move away from the singular heroic figures.”

New York City’s two biggest design stories of 2019 are also design failures

Photo by Max Touhey.

I’m angry that the two biggest architecture stories of New York 2019 are fuckups. The hollow grandeur of Hudson Yards and the evacuated spaces of the Hunters Point Library in Queens have turned what could have been triumphant moments for planning and design into queasy spectacles, albeit of different sorts. It’s difficult to get people to pay attention to architecture any other way. Our national addiction to drama extends to million- and billion-dollar projects that will shape the waterfront for the next 50-plus years.

At Hudson Yards, the failure is forever. Manhattan’s new neighborhood, master-planned by Kohn Pedersen Fox, is a bewildering forest of glass and granite, with too little green and too little seating and too little easily accessible food, centered around a piece of public sculpture that is as useless as it is massive. If Thomas Heatherwick Studio’s Vessel—a carnival ride that everyone wants to photograph, yet no one wants to take a spin—were temporary, I might be able to live with it, but it is hard to see how it could ever go away.

Book Review: The $17 Million Dollar People Trap

Disneyland’s July 17, 1955 opening-day reviews were excoriating. H.W. Mooring of the Los Angeles Tidings wrote, “Walt’s dream is a nightmare. I attended the so-called press premiere of Disneyland, a fiasco the like of which I cannot recall in thirty years of show life. To me, it felt like a giant cash register, clicking and clanging, as creatures of Disney magic came tumbling down from their lofty places in my daydreams …” Another headline called it “The $17 Million Dollar People Trap.” There were children’s tears. There were endless lines. There was bumper-to-bumper traffic.

In other words, just like any other day in the Magic Kingdom.

As one skips through Richard Snow’s sprightly new history of the creation of Disneyland, one is constantly reminded of the human fallibility behind what now feels like an impenetrable entertainment juggernaut. It’s because of Disney that my twelve-year-old knows what IP is. It’s because of Disney that toys become TV become theme park rides. It’s because of Disney that line managers say, “Following guest.” Snow shows the reader what it took to open the gates to nostalgic Main Street, western Frontierland, watery Adventureland, storybook Fantasyland and never-finished Tomorrowland—and it took a lot, from hand-built rides to experiments in aluminum and Fiberglas, from hand-painted backdrops to Stanford Research Institute reports on the future growth of southern California.

A maximalist designer brings ‘organized chaos’ to an Angelino Heights Victorian

Photo by Leela Cyd for Curbed.

Designer Gere Kavanaugh bought her two-story Victorian house in Los Angeles’s Angelino Heights in the early 1980s, slowly transforming its rundown interior into a showcase for treasures made by friends, artisans, and, principally, herself. “What I like in a house is organized chaos,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in 1969. “Everything I have has special meaning. It all relates to my work.” She would say the same today.

Over the course of her 65-year career, Kavanaugh designed trade shows for General Motors, department stores for Joseph Magnin, fabrics for Isabel Scott, 10-foot-high metal flowers for shopping malls, and a city-planning playset for children. Reminders of each of these phases, her maximalist sense of color and texture undisturbed by the passage of modernism, postmodernism, deconstructivism, and neo-modernism, pepper Kavanaugh’s house, demonstrating the truth of a statement she wrote decades ago for her Cranbrook Academy of Art graduation: “Design is an accumulation of everything that you perceive. It is all taken in, chewed and digested and stored for a future time. When the proper time comes, an idea is born of this.”

Looking at Where Chicago Works

James R. Thompson Center by Helmut Jahn. Photo by David Kasnic.

Lee Bey stood under the rotunda at the James R. Thompson Center, 13 stories of mirror-glass balconies rising around him in tiers, and shiny elevators (now off-limits without official business) zipping up and down.

The idea of the center, which opened in 1985 at the corner of Clark and Randolph streets, was to make a new indoor civic space downtown, with state government offices supported by the retail outlets and a food court. You can get a marriage license here. You can also eat at Taco Bell. “It embodies the idea of transparent democracy,” he said. “You can see all the elements at work.”

Even the so-bad-they-are-good 1980s colors in the atrium have meaning: “It takes the elements of a traditional government building” — the dome, the flag — “and plays with them. The red, white and blue becomes a salmon and a teal.”

Edward Norton on ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ and the complicated legacy of Robert Moses

In the film, activist Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) rallies protesters in front of a triumphal arch—an echo of famous photos of Jane Jacobs at Washington Square. Photo by Glen Wilson.

Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, follows the gumshoe Lionel Essrog as he attempts to find the murderers of his boss and mentor, Frank Minna. In his quest, he is both helped and hindered by his Tourette’s syndrome. The reader is taken on a ride through his “ticcing” brain as well as the dark contemporary city, centered in Brooklyn, where the orphaned Lionel grew up in a Catholic boys’ home and Minna ran his small-time detective agency.

In Edward Norton’s long-gestating film version, released earlier this month, the calendar has flipped from the 1990s back to the 1950s. The movie’s heavy is a version of a figure who should be very familiar to Curbed readers: Robert Moses, standing astride the city and destroying brownstone neighborhoods in the name of progress. Norton’s character, however, is not a Robert Moses facsimile, but a man named Moses Randolph (played by Alec Baldwin). But for the close watcher, Randolph’s office in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge, his love of swimming, and his fistful of mayoral appointments all hew close to the real Moses’s biography.

If Curbed could start its own Pop-Up Video series, this film would make a terrific first episode.

Critic Alexandra Lange talked to Edward Norton—who wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the film as Essrog—about film noir, fictional villains, and planning for the people. Spoilers ahead.

La Korman House di Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn's Korman House, photo by Chris Mottalini.

I was asked to write a short piece on Louis Kahn’s Korman House for the October issue of Casa Vogue to accompany photographs by the talented Chris Mottalini.

Un conto è progettare una casa che si presenti bellissima nelle foto del primo giorno. Tutt’altra faccenda è progettarne una che prima accoglie una famiglia, poi un’altra e, dopo una quarantina d’anni, appaia ancora stupenda. È il caso della Korman House a Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, disegnata dall’architetto Louis Kahn e realizzata fra il 1971 e il ’73 – il suo ultimo incarico prima della prematura scomparsa nel marzo 1974. I committenti erano Steven e Toby Korman, la cui attività di famiglia era, ed è ancora, l’imprenditoria immobiliare. La coppia aveva tre figli; volendo dare loro spazio per crescere pianificarono, insieme alla sorella di Steven, Lynne Honickman, e a diversi cugini, un complesso familiare su un terreno non edificato di oltre 28 ettari, nei sobborghi di Philadelphia. La vicina casa degli Honickman, anch’essa progettata da Kahn, non è mai stata realizzata, consentendo alla Korman House di guadagnare spazio in un paesaggio progettato da Harriet Pattison (91 anni, architetto del paesaggio, l’ultima compagna di Louis Kahn, nonché madre di Nathaniel).

Navigating the new MoMA

Photo by Max Touhey of the first-floor gallery at the expanded Museum of Modern Art.

PACE YOURSELF,” I tweeted the first time I saw the new MoMA. Two and a half hours after I arrived, I was exhausted … and I hadn’t even had time to visit the store. As the nice young woman from marketing moonlighting at the Information desk said, the new MoMA is now on the order of the Met or the Louvre. You’d be foolish to try to do it all in a day. You need to think about visiting differently.

Typically when a new museum opens, the architecture critics cover the building and the art critics cover the exhibits. That works for buildings with boundaries. But the new MoMA isn’t a static object or a solid, it’s a hydra, wending its way behind the permanent parade of silver and black curtain walls on West 53rd Street, snaking upward in three strands, west, north, and south, behind surfaces that are grandly and blandly fine.

“Grandly and blandly fine” has been my mental description of MoMA ever since Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2004 expansion created many of the circulation and hierarchy problems that the latest set of architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler, were hired to fix, $450 million and 47,000 square feet ago. (The museum is now 165,000 square feet in total.) Taniguchi decided minimal detailing and maximal spaces were the way to add grandeur to the museum’s collection of buildings, taking his cue from the generosity of Philip Johnson’s 1953 sculpture garden. But his big gestures, especially the four-story white atrium, felt flat after their initial impact. Even if space is the ultimate luxury in Manhattan, that volume managed to feel cheap.

MoMA has doubled down on details and dun-colored materials, but the museum wasn’t so foolish as to ask its new architects for more grand spaces. Instead, they were asked to solve a traffic problem: how to get 2.8 million visitors per year through the galleries without choke points and lines, confusion and disappointment. Hence the hydra, which springs from a lobby that appears power-washed and forks into gallery after gallery of greatest hits and new surprises. The power of the new MoMA – the flex – comes from the art, not the architecture.