Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Aspirational Fantasy of the Perfect Playroom

Marcel Breuer, House in the Museum Garden, photo by Ezra Stoller (1949).

Hazel Cills asked me to comment for an article on the history of playrooms.

“In the 1950s there was a lot of parenting advice directed at young families about what should be an ideal playroom,” says Alexandra Lange, Curbed’s architecture critic and author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids. “It was about art supplies and toys that would spark an inquisitive spirit or a desire to construct.” Magazines stressed that keeping playrooms as simple as possible would help promote a child’s creativity. Architects like Marcel Breuer and Gregory Ain designed and built house models each featuring playrooms in the late 1940s and early 1950s at the Museum of Modern Art garden, tying the playroom to clean, modern design.

It certainly didn’t hurt that a cool, sleek playroom would also reflect parents’ tastes. “Right from the beginning parenting experts and childhood experts are involved and there’s a discussion about whether you should design the playroom for the kids or for the parents,” Lange says. “You have experts saying, you don’t need a fairy tale theme, you don’t need a cowboy theme.”

Future's Past: The historical experiments of Teo Yang

Photo by Gary Yeh.

A traditional Korean guest house should contain four elements: a book, a handcrafted object, a landscape painting and good tea. On a chilly day last December, the fourth item is offered as a welcoming gesture in the reception room of the home of designer Teo Yang, an emerging star in the increasingly sought-after world of South Korean design. Served in small celadon cups, the tea mitigates the draft through the wood-and-glass screen walls of Yang’s renovated 1917 hanok, a tile-roofed courtyard house in the historic Bukchon neighborhood of Seoul. The teacup sits on a footed wooden tray no larger than a notebook—made by a local woodworker—next to a precisely wrapped caramel—made by a local confectioner.

This site-specific still life of tea, caramel and tray provides a capsule summary of Yang’s approach to design, combining past and present in multisensory experiences that include interiors, furniture, scents and skincare. In fact, every detail of his home’s interior—from the built-in cabinetry with arches inlaid across the drawers to the geometric sun, moon and mountains on the sliding doors—is a reflection of the thoughtful balance he strikes between traditional and modern. The hanok architectural style, once seen by Koreans as a relic and an impediment to urbanization, is now appreciated as an important cultural form. But Yang’s interest in the form goes beyond historic preservation. ‘People think that I am one of the cultural keepers,’ he says. ‘Oh, Teo is an important figure because he protects our traditions, but I am not really trying to protect traditions. I want to talk about the future, but in a context. We have a motto at our studio: Past in the future. We always try to think in those terms.’

Coronavirus Will Change the World. Here’s How.

POLITICO asked 34 thinkers about what’s to come post-pandemic. Here’s what I told them.

A revival of parks.

People often see parks as a destination for something specific, like soccer fields, barbecues or playgrounds, and all of those functions must now be avoided. But that doesn’t make the parks any less valuable. I’m sheltering in place in Brooklyn with my family, and every day, the one time we go outside is to walk a loop north through Brooklyn Bridge Park and south down the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. I’m seeing people asking Golden Gate Park to close the roads so there’s even more space for people. In Britain, the National Trust is trying to open more gardens and parks for free. Urban parks—in which most major cities have made significant investments over the past decade—are big enough to accommodate both crowds and social distancing. It helps that it is spring in the northern hemisphere.

Society might come out of the pandemic valuing these big spaces even more, not only as the backdrop to major events and active uses, but as an opportunity to be together visually. I’ve been writing a book about shopping malls, and I would certainly not recommend a visit right now (all those virus-carrying surfaces). But, in suburban communities, malls have historically served the same function: somewhere to go, somewhere to be together. What we have right now is parks. After this is all over, I would love to see more public investment in open, accessible, all-weather places to gather, even after we no longer need to stay six feet apart.

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.”