Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Rem Koolhaas is the real diva

Illustration by Naomi Elliott.

In the final installment of our summer series, Curbed’s architecture critic re-reads all 1,344 pages of the Dutch architect’s “S,M,L,XL”

S,M,L,XL does not hide its ambition: 1,344 pages. Three inches thick. A dictionary, a chronology, a comic, an excerpt from Delirious New York, plans, diagrams, photographs, poetry, dialogues, history lessons and, last but not least, the work of Rem Koolhaas and his office since 1972. Three authors are listed on the cover of the book, which was published in 1995: OMA, Koolhaas specifically, and designer Bruce Mau. In recent years, editor Jennifer Sigler has also received her fair share of credit in press about the book.

In the first edition, the cover is silver with black and yellow embossed type. One name is in yellow, in lights: Rem.

The first two weighty books I re-read for this series wore their organization on their sleeves. Christopher Alexander worked in numbered patterns, starting with the largeness of the city and working his way down to the smallness of decor. Virginia McAlester organized her field guide chronologically, folk to colonial, Victorian to modern.

Ostensibly, this one is no different. The work of the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), Koolhaas’s firm, is organized into, yes, small, medium, large, and extra-large categories. The texts are interspersed between visual sections. Dictionary entries, definitions drawn from hundreds of sources, run down the left side of the page beginning with Abolish, Absence, Accepted. The result is a jumble and a wave, a wash of information that doesn’t actually hold you by the hand. We aren’t wading in to the work of OMA, but taking the plunge. The first line of the introduction is “Architecture is a hazardous mixture of omnipotence and impotence,” and already the audience is like, You aren’t kidding with that!

Continues: Curbed

What ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’ meant to me as a woman in architecture

Bernadette Fix (Cate Blanchett) at the Seattle Central Library. Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures.

When I first met Bernadette Fox, I wasn’t sure what to think. Fox, the protagonist of Maria Semple’s epistolary novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is a middle-aged female architect who no longer practices, the mother of an eighth grader, an unwilling resident of Seattle, and a MacArthur “genius” award winner married to a TED-talking AI specialist. Two days before Christmas, she disappears on a cruise to Antarctica.

The book was hilarious and felt so real—except for the disappearing part. I started to pick at the details. How long has knitting been a subversive craft? When was the color pink co-opted by feminists? Was Bernadette an avatar of thwarted female creativity for her time or for ours? My real question, embedded in a blog post I wrote for Design Observer at the time, was whether Bernadette Fox was a good role model.

Creating a role model wasn’t Semple’s intention, but as a woman in architecture who, when I read the book in 2013, had a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, the book’s entwined storylines of motherhood and genius and how women find the space to make something great… well, I found it hard not to identify. I rooted for Bernadette against the “Galer Street gnats,” the private school moms who didn’t understand her disinterest in participating in school activities or taking care of her yard. I rooted for Bernadette to seem like a gift and not a problem for her workaholic husband. I rooted for Bernadette and the sense of adventure she shared only with her daughter, Bee.

On August 16, the movie adaptation of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” arrives in theaters, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Cate Blanchett as Bernadette. I had cast Julianne Moore in my head while reading the book, but no matter. Movie Bernadette sports the bangs and round sunglasses of the Keith Hayes illustration on the front of the book. Billy Crudup plays her Microsoft engineer husband, Elgin Branch; Kristin Wiig plays her mom-nemesis Audrey Griffin in a series of holiday turtlenecks straight from L.L.Bean; Emma Nelson plays Bernadette’s daughter, the delightful Bee Branch, whom you will want to adopt. (Light spoilers for both the book and the film ahead.)

When I heard that Bernadette was going to be made into a movie, I was excited. Every time I shared news of its progress on Twitter, other women in architecture were excited too. Bernadette meant something to all of us. But what?

Continues: Curbed

The Big Little Lie of the TV kitchen island

Illustration by Sunny Eckerle.

In the first episode of the first season of Big Little Lies, the blended Mackenzie-Carlson family sits down to dinner together. Roast chicken, green beans, salad on a side plate. A dinner being served in millions of homes across America tonight. Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) has changed out of the alpha-mom outfit she wore to first-grade orientation—spike heels, flowery fit-and-flare dress, mini trench—and into a periwinkle blue sweater that millions of moms are also wearing.

Big Little Lies, the HBO series that wrapped up its disappointing and disjointed second season on July 21, was ostensibly about—spoilers for both seasons of the show ahead—the circumstances behind the death of Celeste’s abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), and the lengths to which five attractive-in-different-ways Monterey mothers would go to cover it up. But I was there for the actresses, the clothes, and the houses.

The family sits not around the dining table but around the kitchen island. The island is, truly, one of the largest I have ever seen, and I have seen all the Nancy Meyers movies. The Mackenzie-Carlson house is a real house, located in Malibu rather than Monterey, and this black, shiny, alien-spaceship of an island is its real kitchen.

Continues: Curbed

Let Christopher Alexander design your life

Illustration by Naomi Elliott.

Second in the series Overdue Books, in which Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange takes a fresh look at classics of the architectural canon.

I received my copy of “A Pattern Language” as a high school graduation gift. I had already declared my intention to be an architect, so my aunt and uncle bought me the design equivalent of the Bible—thick and minimally illustrated, with a specialized system of numerical classification and a studiously typographic cover. If a non-architect is looking for a gift for a wannabe, there it is. As a design-enthusiast, you may have gotten a copy once too; the 42-year-old book is parked at the top of Amazon’s Architectural Criticism bestsellers list.

It looked handsome in my dorm room alongside my new dictionary and Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. And like both of those tomes, I barely opened it. The architecture library was filled with books with lovely glossy pictures. My rudimentary word processing program had a thesaurus. What was a “pattern” anyway? And why were there 253 of them?

The book was enshrined but unread. But “A Pattern Language,” which was written by Christopher Alexander with Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel (all colleagues at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Structure in the 1970s) turns out to be an ideal place candidate for a re-read. A pattern is the way physical design responds to human relationships. I didn’t need it as a teenager, but I turned to it after I got married, and then again after I had kids. Patterns that were meaningless at 17 – like Pattern 73, “Adventure Playground”–feel like breadcrumbs charting a new way of looking at cities now that I’m a parent.

Continues: Curbed

New York City is a mall

The Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, my photo.

I have been to the Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards six times—six times—and yet I’m still getting lost. Is Muji on the second or third floor? Is the Instagram-worthy Van Leeuwen ice cream shop down the hall? Forty Five Ten, the Dallas-born boutique that is the grandbaby of Barneys, is definitely up on the fifth floor, but how do you get from the first to the second floor without passing Blue Bottle Coffee? And what is the fastest route to William Greenberg rainbow cake to placate your kids who hate Vessel?

“It’s just stairs,” they say. “Can we get bubble tea?”

R. Webber Hudson, a Related Companies executive vice president, doesn’t have this problem. He and his team curated the “vertical retail center”—he winces each time I refer to it as a mall—and its configuration is as clear to him as the glass in the six-story atrium. International luxury brands are on the first floor; previously only-on-the-internet brands like M. Gemi shoes and Japanese normcore faves Uniqlo and Muji are on the second; high-volume draws Zara and H&M are stacked on three and four; and so on.

There’s a logic, but I am frustrated that I can’t see it.

Continues: Curbed

Self-Driving Kids

Robert Morse for LIFE, June 1947.

Autonomous cars? Who needs ’em. If you want to improve your city then design it so that children have more autonomy. In this episode we hit the playground with architecture critic Alexandra Lange, the author of “The Design of Childhood.” To grow up into healthy, functional adults, kids need opportunities to experience freedom and independence. Alexandra argues that car-dominated streets make that more difficult. A city designed for cars is a city that’s lousy for families — and pretty much everyone else. Plus: The surprising history of playgrounds.

Listen: The War on Cars

Natural wonder

Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden.

The exuberant career of the Brazilian designer Roberto Burle Marx brings the oft-overlooked field of landscape architecture to the foreground

The polymathic Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx is having a moment.

Following shows at the Jewish Museum in 2016 and the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2017, “Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx”—the largest exhibition ever put on at the New York Botanical Garden, and the first to display an entire outdoor garden—opened June 8. The NYBG, which is located in the Bronx, is easily accessible via the Botanical Garden station on the Metro-North’s Harlem line, or a short walk from several subways. In December, its Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a grand Victorian structure, hosts an annual train show with New York City landmarks rendered in bark. This summer, it has traveled south rather than to the North Pole.

“Brazilian Modern” completely takes over a stretch of lawn in front of the wedding cake-like conservatory, replacing that high-maintenance surface with a little slice of the tropics, 1950s style. Burle Marx died in 1994, so Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles was called in to create a Burle Marx remix, combining plants, patterns, and architectural fragments into a lush and dramatic pastiche.

Continues: Curbed

Virginia McAlester is the most popular architecture writer in America

Illustration by Naomi Elliott.

In the first installment of our summer series Overdue Books, Curbed’s architecture critic re-reads A Field Guide to American Houses

If you visit the Architectural History best-seller list on Amazon, you will notice Virginia Savage McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses is almost always near the top. Displaced briefly by a Bauhaus anniversary or a famous architect’s death, it always bobs up again. I’ve owned the book for years, first in its original 1984 edition, then the chunky 2015 paperback revision, but I haven’t dipped into it too often. But seeing the book beat my own sales and those of my friends week after week made me curious, not to mention jealous: Why so popular?

It only took me two chapters to figure it out. Virginia McAlester tells you exactly what you need to know about your neighborhood.

If you had the arm strength to carry the Field Guide everywhere (or bought the e-book), you could walk down any street in America and identify the style, age, and component parts of each and every home you pass. Her most enthusiastic readers are preservationists, or wannabe preservationists, trying to quantify just what it is that makes a place so different, so special. Her wider audience comprises people who simply want to know what’s going on out there, starting at their doorstep. It was slightly startling to realize how rarely I’ve considered that view in my writing—though I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about the transformation of the inside of the American home.

Can Data Be Human? The Work of Giorgia Lupi

Stefanie Posavec, A Week of Schedules. From "Dear Data" by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec.

The designer Giorgia Lupi was born in 1981 and believes that she is part of a special bridge generation. “I was raised in a completely analog environment,” she says. “I was a teen-ager when all of the awkward connection and human connection needed to be made in real life. But, at the same time, because I started to use technology as a teen-ager, I’m fluent in both worlds.” This week, Lupi joins the graphic-design firm Pentagram as the only partner who has a focus on information design. Her work, consistent with her upbringing, brings a tactile feel to computer code, and her appointment is an occasion to assess information design—a field located between graphic design and data science—and the possibilities it holds.

Sitting in Pentagram’s crisp quarters, on Park Avenue South, Lupi cuts an extremely organized figure: petite and black-clad, with a looping black necklace and round black glasses, accented by a cap of red hair. Born in Modena, Italy, and trained as an architect, Lupi had her first brush with information design while in college via an exercise in urban mapping, inspired by the planner Kevin Lynch. In his landmark book, “The Image of the City,” published in 1961, Lynch asked people to draw their city for a visitor, paying attention to their own everyday paths and major landmarks, without reference to geography. Of course, each person’s map, both in Lynch’s book and Lupi’s exercise, was different—but that did not mean that one map was more accurate than another. Rather, each person was telling a different story through cartography.

Continues: New Yorker

Was the Founder of the Bauhaus a Doctrinaire Bore or a Brilliant Innovator?

Walter and Ise Gropius, a few year after their marriage in 1923. Courtesy Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.

Walter Gropius has always seemed like the grayest man of the Bauhaus. Mies van der Rohe had his whiskey-colored skyscraper and book-matched marble. Marcel Breuer had his winking butterfly roofs and the cantilevered cane chairs at every architect’s dining table. Gropius’s design signifiers are much drier — flat roofs, glass corners — and have now been thoroughly absorbed into the general collection of modernist imagery. Even his one completed attempt at a signature skyscraper — Manhattan’s Pan Am tower, that prismatic doorstop straddling Park Avenue — is hard to love.

Fiona MacCarthy, the author of previous books on Lord Byron, Eric Gill and William Morris, acknowledges his image problem in her preface to “Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus.” “Not the least of the myths I have had to contend with in writing his life is the idea that Gropius was doctrinaire and boring,” she writes, laying blame for this characterization at the feet of Tom Wolfe, in “From Bauhaus to Our House,” and Alma Mahler, Gropius’s first wife, in her memoirs. MacCarthy perceives Gropius a bit differently — as one might hope for a biographer. “I see him as in many ways heroic, a romantic and optimist, a great survivor,” she writes. What’s more, “Sexually Gropius was far from negligible.”

The subtitle has a double meaning. Gropius, who was born in Berlin in 1883, built both the flat-roofed, glass-cornered building that housed the Bauhaus school in Dessau and the faculty and curriculum for a modern school of design.

Continues: New York Times