Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Cas Holman’s Search for the Ideal Playground

Designer Cas Holman with Geemo, her first toy to market. Courtesy Netflix.

What if the future of early-childhood education didn’t involve an iPad? What if, on the playground, movable blocks and ladders replaced fixed plastic slides and tubes? What if teachers acted more like guides and were less beholden to worksheets? School would be more like the creative process (rather than the counting-the-minutes crucible that many students experience) and the tools would look quite different: wooden play pieces, ropes and pulleys, nuts and bolts. That’s where Cas Holman comes in. Holman is the founder of the toy company Heroes Will Rise, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and one of six designers profiled in the second season of “Abstract: The Art of Design,” on Netflix. In the episode that features Holman, we get a glimpse of the educational future, as Chinese kindergartners, dressed for the rain in full-body yellow slickers, create a life-size version of a Hot Wheels track out of ladders and barrels, learning about coöperation, gravity, and momentum along the way.

Holman, who is forty-five, is best known as a member of the design team behind the Imagination Playground blocks: blue foam logs, bricks, arches, and chutes, some as big as a preschooler; they allow children to build their own playground and, in the process, practice teamwork. Since 2010, when the blocks were launched, in a park in lower Manhattan, they have spread to libraries, children’s museums, more parks, and schools in more than seventy countries. The blocks, which are bulky but lightweight, make it possible to set up play practically anywhere; the minute they hit the floor, the kids take over, creating their own world, with their own hands—not without some bickering. “The reason I design for children is I’m designing for people,” Holman said. “These are the people that are going to make the world suck or not suck. Good toys make good people.”

Continues: New Yorker

Skateboarding in Style

Jolie Crider Memorial Skatepark 2.0, designed by Finnish landscape architect and former professional skater Janne Saario. Photograph by Hadley Fruits.

Columbus, Ind., is known as a mecca of postwar modern architecture, with churches, libraries, and post offices designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Harry Weese and a host of other big names. The city’s latest destination is somewhat smaller: a skatepark, albeit one with an international design pedigree. Jolie Crider Memorial Skatepark 2.0, designed by Janne Saario, a Finnish landscape architect and former professional skater, opened in early September. The skatepark bridges the past and future of Columbus, with Mitchell Giurgola Architects’ 1972 Columbus East High School right across the street.

The podcast “99 Percent Invisible” got Mr. Saario the job: Jonathan Nesci, a designer who lives in Columbus and is the father of a skater, cold-emailed the architect after listening to “The Pool and the Stream,” a 2017 episode about the connection between curvaceous swimming pools and skatepark design featuring Mr. Saario. Mr. Nesci eventually gave Mr. Saario one of his mirror-polished side tables in return for a conceptual design. Hunger Skateparks, in Bloomington, Ind., signed on to build the $400,000, 14,000-square-foot project, with support from the city, the county’s Heritage Fund, the Columbus Park Foundation and local donors. The new concrete skatepark is far more durable than its predecessor, as well as more seamlessly integrated into the landscape, reflecting the same investment in advanced design as those public works of the 1950s and 1960s.

Continues: New York Times

Brutalism Springs Eternal in Morocco

The site around 1960, from the book “Zevaco” by Michel Ragon and Henri Tastemain. Afriat/Frac Centre-Val de Loire Collection.

When Aziza Chaouni was a girl, she spent holidays with her grandmothers at Sidi Harazem, a thermal bath complex built next to an ancient magnesium-rich spring about seven miles east of Fez, Morocco.

One grandmother loved the new complex, designed by Jean-François Zevaco and completed in 1960, soon after Moroccan independence. “She was born and raised in Fez, in the old city, and she was very keen on alternative medicine,” said Ms. Chaouni, a professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto and principal of Aziza Chaouni Projects. “She was amazed by the new facilities. We would stay in the bungalows that were modeled after the medina — as a child it was like a maze.”

The other grandmother was nostalgic for the pre-modern Sidi Harazem. The springs, set in an arid mountain range, had drawn visitors since the time of the Romans, and Sultan Abu el-Hassan built a 14th-century shrine to Sidi Harazem, a Sufi theologian, on a nearby plateau. “They used to wake up at 5 a.m. and walk from Fez, then simply camp. Locals would offer space in their own homes,” Ms. Chaouni recalled. “For people who lived in Fez, it was their green lung.”

Continues: New York Times

Who’s afraid of the pedestrian mall?

Victor Gruen’s first downtown project on Burdick Street in Kalamazoo, Michigan, circa 1970. Photo by Lance Ferraro.

Ah, the heady optimism of 1974! On the cover of The Pedestrian Revolution, by Simon Breines and William J. Dean, men in bell-bottoms and women in vests stroll between planters of lush blooms, dine under a purple umbrella, take a tram, always surrounded by blocky towers. “Streets Without Cars,” the subtitle, offers the promise of leisure, sunshine, and family time on some not-so-mean streets.

“Urban society’s growing frustration with the automobile, and the congestion it causes, is a major factor behind the Pedestrian Revolution,” Breines and Dean write. “Pedestrianism enhances our physical well-being both by reducing air and noise pollution and by encouraging, through the creation of urban strollways and urban bikeways, the greater use of footpower.”

Yes, you think. Too true, you nod. And then the publication date sinks in.

We’ve been here before, if here means trying to assert the primacy of the person—the pedestrian, the cyclist, the transit rider—in the matrix of city streets. We’ve been here before if here means realizing that, for the health of the planet, we need to make the pedestrian life easier than the windshield view.

Once upon a time in the 1960s and 1970s, urban leaders pushed cars out of downtown. Why is it so hard to do that now?

Continues: Curbed

How to Fix Polarization: Get Politicians Out of Cars

POLITICO Magazine asked dozens of big thinkers to tell them their boldest solutions to America’s problems, and this was my response…

Public space is inextricable from urban issues. But many politicians have become disconnected from the physical reality of the people they serve, which leads to a disconnect from their constituents.

I propose a movement to get all politicians—or at least mayors and other urban politicians—to spend at least one day a week working car-free. This wouldn’t just be an exercise in empathy for constituents who don’t have cars, or an opportunity for politicians to experience the public transportation system from which, via years of being driven from A to B to C, they may have become estranged. There are hundreds of data points that could drive policy that can best be understood while walking down a sidewalk, cycling down a bike lane or tapping on to a bus. Are sidewalks in good repair? Is there shade at the bus stops? Where does it flood during a rainstorm? Reducing car dependence is also key to any meaningful strategy to address the climate crisis: We need to give people good options to abandon their cars.

Continues: Politico

Is Instagram Ruining Architecture?

The Colossal Cacti at Coachella Music Festival in Indio, Calif. Photo by Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse.

On my phone, Instagram is a series of squares and rectangles with pictures of babies, clogs, books, lakes and buildings, buildings and more buildings. But when I read or hear about Instagram, none of these — except for babies — seem to exist on the app.

In trend stories and anxious conversations, the focus is almost always on commercial influencers and sponsored content, how the rise of the Instagram-friendly museum is cheapening our experience of art, or how Instagram’s gaze is making us worry about keeping our bodies and our houses in picture-perfect condition. But that’s not all Instagram can be.

Of course, I realize I’m a special case in some ways — I’m an architecture and design critic. Buildings are my life. But it isn’t that unusual to try to find and follow the tranche of people who love what you love. If you’re in the visual arts, they are probably on Instagram.

Continues: New York Times

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