Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Is America’s densest city ready to make room?

A rendering of 80 Flatbush, which will stand just under 1,000 feet tall. Courtesy Alloy Development

At its current rate of growth, Brooklyn is about to be more populous than the entire city of Chicago.

Saying “we need more housing” is a given, but no one agrees on where, how high, and for whom. And New York has been later to that discussion than San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles: While the city is building housing, technically, it is nowhere near enough to meet the needs of 144,000 new Kings County residents since 2010.

All of this zooms into sharp focus on a 60,000-square-foot trapezoidal block straddling scenic Boerum Hill and high-traffic Flatbush Avenue. The proposed mixed-use project known as 80 Flatbush will include two high-rise towers, with offices below and 900 residences above. Twenty percent of its apartments will be affordable, and two existing historic brick buildings will be repurposed as a cultural facility and retail space. Two schools will be built, underwritten by the Educational Construction Fund (ECF), which creates schools on underutilized city sites without public funding.

The developers are seeking a change to the city’s zoning laws in order to build bigger and more dense, but have run into opposition from some Boerum Hill residents, who view the project as out of scale with their low-slung neighborhood. The City Council will decide its fate soon, perhaps by the end of this month.

Continues: Curbed

From schools to sand piles

Mt. Healthy Elementary School in Columbus, Ind. (Norman McGrath / H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture LLC)

An interview with Carolina A. Miranda in the Los Angeles Times. Turns out she went to an open plan school too, in Irvine, Calif.

When architecture critic Alexandra Lange first had her children — a son and daughter, now ages 11 and 7, respectively — she says that she found herself, like many parents of infants, contending with an avalanche of stuff: toys, dish ware, clothing, furnishings and assorted accoutrements.

“As a design critic, all this stuff was coming into my house and I had opinions about it,” she recalls. Like the Automoblox Minis that someone had gifted her son — toys that showed a good eye for form, but which failed crucial tests of day-to-day play. “By the 100th time I lost the wheels under my couch,” says Lange, “I decided that they didn’t work.”

That episode inspired an essay in Fast Company about toy design. Since then, the intersecting topics of kids and design is something she has revisited regularly in her dispatches for Curbed and the New Yorker. And it’s something she explores at length in her new book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids,” published this summer by Bloomsbury.

As expected, the book contains chapters devoted to charting the history of important toys, such as wood blocks and Lego. But “Design of Childhood” casts a wider, more ambitious net, looking at the ways in which attention to children and their needs has helped shape design at large — including public space (playgrounds), architecture (schools and the home) and urbanism (safe street design).

Continues: Los Angeles Times

The Summer Idyll of Free-Range Children Could Last All Year

As many families head back to school (at last), what should they keep from the summer, besides jars of shells? New York City schools start after Labor Day. My family, like many others, tries to make the most of summer by going on vacation during the last week of August. Our getaway of choice is Fire Island, where, for the past four years, we’ve rented the same house. It isn’t ours, of course, but by now there is comfort in returning to the same corduroy sofa, the same mismatched mugs, the same rusty bicycles.

Familiarity means that we can quickly adapt to a way of life that feels very different from our daily existence in Brooklyn. And it isn’t just the lack of deadlines. The kids go in and out on their own, wandering to a friend’s house or biking to the next town over, with no more than a word of departure or a confirming text on arrival. We meet up on the beach and pretend to read. If you need to go home to use the bathroom, you go—the house isn’t locked—and come back with a bag of chips. I am not texting, calendaring, accompanying at all times. I can sit. My phone stays in a Ziploc bag for hours. Suddenly, it’s dinnertime.

For a week, I catch a glimpse of the family life that previous generations are always telling us about: “My mother kicked us out of the house after breakfast and said, ‘Don’t come back until dinner!’ ” Or, “We went out to the woods behind our house after school and built forts.” Or, “As soon as we scraped together the change, we walked downtown and went to the movies.”

Continues: New Yorker

How Kids Learn to Navigate the City (and the World), in Five Designs

Kiddicraft Interlocking Building Cubes, A Hilary Page Design, 1950. Chas Saunter, hilarypagetoys.com

I spoke to Amanda Kolson Hurley at CityLab about five designs for children discussed in my book: Kiddicraft, the Tripp Trapp chair, Crow Island School, Aldo Van Eyck’s playgrounds, and False Creek South in Vancouver.

In the era of Marie Kondo, the streamlining of our material lives still runs into one big obstacle: parenthood. “To have a child is to be thrown suddenly, and I found rather miraculously, back into the world of stuff,” writes design critic Alexandra Lange in her new book, The Design of Childhood. As Lange and countless other parents discover, you might use a baby-monitor app and have episodes of Peppa Pig on the iPad, but living with children means swimming in a sea of tactile objects—teething necklaces and strollers, play kitchens and board books.

Continues: CityLab

Meet the Hunters

Just in time for Christmas 1956, Life magazine published a special issue, “The American Woman: Her Achievements and Troubles.” It is a curious, equivocal document, on the one hand celebrating women’s new freedom (as embodied by their ability to drive), on the other emphasizing the “duties and responsibilities” that come with freedom.

But one American woman, at least, saw no need to be the passive recipient of other’s innovations. On page 134, “To suit her own needs as mother, cook and laundress,” in her “Housewife’s House” she has placed the kitchen at the center, with a playroom on one side, dining area on another, and the living room on a third. Thanks to sponsorship from GE, her model kitchen comes with motorized shades, so that any side may be screened, along with up-to-date lemon yellow appliances.

Photos show what we would now refer to as a “breakfast bar,” to which kids (including her son Christopher) have pulled up wire-and-cord stools. Kids can help themselves to snacks via a small refrigerator accessed from the playroom side of the counter; there’s also a whole cork-covered wall to hold their pin-ups.

Perhaps the cleverest touch is in the entrance hall, where stainless-steel pans set into the floor make it easy to remove dirt from muddy boots, and mesh doors allow wet coats to dry. When you live in New England, and you’re the one cleaning, you think of such things.

Continues: Curbed

Putting Play Back in Playground

Kurt Andersen accompanied Alexandra Lange (and her children) for a tour of The Hills on Governors Island to discuss the history of playgrounds. Part of a play-themed episode of Studio 360 that also covers Frisbees and Barbies.