Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

OMA‘s plan for the Albright-Knox chases the contemporary to the detriment of its past

Aerial view of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Photo by Blake Dawson.

The future of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, New York, is a blue foam rectangle.

Shohei Shigematsu, partner-in-charge at OMA New York, lifts the block—which represents the new gallery space his firm is designing for the museum as part of its $125 million dollar expansion—over a model of the existing campus, set on a knoll overlooking Hoyt Lake in Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1876 Delaware Park.

The expansion, whose concept design was announced in June, will also include an underground parking garage, renovations of its existing neoclassical 1905 and modernist 1962 buildings, and new education facilities and offices.

He holds the block over a model of the 1962 building, the previous expansion designed by Buffalo native Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Bunshaft’s addition combines a square-donut courtyard, not unlike the elevated box at his Lever House in New York, with ground-floor galleries and a floating, black-glass auditorium—the yin to E.B. Green’s white columned yang.

It doesn’t fit—it’s far too large—but the scheme OMA has proposed bears the fingerprints of designing by boxes: They split the blue box in half, lofting half of the new gallery space in a glass box (or two) elevated above Bunshaft’s courtyard, which would be removed. The other half would be buried underground, next to two levels of parking, in the broad lawn on the Elmwood Avenue side of the museum. The galleries would be topped by a sculpture terrace and a new stair built on the footprint of the 1905 building’s original grand flight.

Continues: Curbed

Organizing the World

Girard house, Grosse Pointe. Photo by Haanel Cassidy/Courtesy Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate.

On September 21, 1967, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson visited Columbus, Indiana. The architects of the town’s famous modern architecture program lined up to greet her outside Gunnar Birkerts’s Lincoln Elementary School (1967), leaning on the concrete bollards designed to channel the schoolchildren up the wide concrete stairs and into the body of the school.

John Dinkeloo, Dan Kiley, Robert Venturi, I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, John Carl Warnecke, Birkerts. But over on the far right, clasping hands with Pei and almost out of frame, is Alexander Girard. That’s where he liked to be.

Designer Alexander Girard was also an architect—though most don’t know him as such—and a key player in making America look and feel modern. Today he is best known for the fabrics he designed as director of the Herman Miller Textile Division between 1952 and 1973, which included everything from colorful stripes to eye-crossing checkers, cut-out flowers to a hand-drawn alphabet.

Continues: Curbed

Jane Jacobs, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Power of the Marimekko Dress

Marimekko "Varjo" dress owned by Georgia O'Keeffe, c. 1963. Designed by Annika Rimala. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum.

On June 20, 1966, Jane Jacobs was speaking out against the destruction of Washington Square Park. “SOS, Park Association of New York City Opposes N.Y.U. Library!” reads the sign taped to the table. And another: “N.Y.U. Don’t block off the … ” The signs overlap. The light? The street? The park? All of the above.

Jacobs was protesting New York University’s plans to build a library on the south side of Washington Square, a great red hulk that she and fellow-protesters feared would turn the public park into an academic green and loom over low-rise row houses. “All the glamour of Philip Johnson [the project’s architect] won’t save that corner of the park from gloom,” she said. “The two elements most destructive of urban parks are highways and educational institutions.” She’d already stopped Robert Moses’s proposed throughway a decade before; now she was trying to take care of the second element.

Peering at a blotchy black-and-white image of this historic event, I noticed something distinctive about the hem of Jacobs’s dress: a lighter-colored scallop wending its way around the bottom, like the brick border on a garden plot. The Jane Jacobs look was simple to the point of caricature: blunt bob with bangs, thick black eyeglass frames, beads. A skirt fit for cycling around Manhattan. Where had I seen that border before? Then it came to me: at the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” a deeper-than-you-might-think look at the painter’s curation of her wardrobe, home, and image. Against one wall, the curator Wanda M. Corn lines up a series of O’Keeffe’s long-sleeved, full-skirted cotton dresses from a Finnish company that epitomized modern fashion: Marimekko. O’Keeffe and Jacobs had (almost) the same dress.

Continues: New Yorker

All About Frank

RIGHT: The Mile-High Illinois, Chicago. Project, 1956. LEFT: Unveiling the 22-foot-high visualization of The Mile-High Illinois at the October 16, 1956 press conference in Chicago. Courtesy FLW Foundation Archives.

MoMA tries to wrest the spotlight from the “world famous architect,” but the player always wins

In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright appeared on the television show What’s My Line? On the show, a panel of once-upon-a-time celebrities ask a mystery guest yes-or-no questions in order to figure out who he is and what he does. We know who Wright is, of course, and there’s anticipatory pleasure even in the decisive way he chalks his name on the show’s blackboard to start: It is less script than graphic, less name than geometry. If Wright was going to be on a game show, he was going to do it properly, though he only admits to having “watched one of the shows with interest.”

Problem was, Wright had already done his job too thoroughly. Under questioning, he reveals that he is self-employed, that he uses his hands, that clients frequently come to him two at a time. “Is this service for both men and women?” one panelist asks. “I like to think so,” says Wright dryly. One lady finally catches on, wondering if he could be in a profession “such as design, or architecture, such as Frank Lloyd Wright?”

“Wright and architecture had, for many Americans, become synonymous,” writes Barry Bergdoll in the catalog for the Museum of Modern Art’s latest Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” which he co-curated with Jennifer Gray. Problem is, for many Americans, Frank Lloyd Wright and architecture still are synonymous. Even the Museum of Modern Art— with whom Wright famously feuded after the 1932 International Style exhibition dared to put his work alongside that of younger, less famous, European architects—has gone back to the Wright well more than a dozen times, giving him solo shows in 1940, 1962 and 1994, as well as spotlighting the acrobatic Fallingwater (1938), both earth-hugging Taliesins (1947), and his radical workplace for Johnson Wax (1952).

Continues: Curbed

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