Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

MADEcast: Social media's influence on design today

In this first episode, titled “The Front Lines: Social Media’s influence on design today,” we chat with NYC design critic and author Alexandra Lange. Our conversation moves through the topics of informal use of social media by architects. The feedback loops embedded within social media. As well as trends and globalism in interior design. We conclude by briefly touching on the role of the mall and Alexandra introduces us to her new book, Meet Me by the Fountain scheduled to be released in June 2022.

What would a city “designed with care” look like?

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, allocating $1.2 trillion toward a wide range of physical investments — from energy grid reconstruction to rebuilding roads and bridges. But infrastructure is more than just these nationwide projects.

In an article titled “What It Means to Design a Space for Care,” Alexandra Lange argues that urban planners and city designers take care into consideration when designing a neighborhood’s infrastructure. Based on a Twitter thread by Mellon Foundation program officer Justin Garrett Moore, Lange says that a dedicated “Department of Care” could link social, cultural and economic forces to the physical world. Today these worlds are all separate.

Marketplace’s Amy Scott spoke to Lange about her macro level look at designing a city with care in mind.

The Women Behind Historic House Designs

“Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered,” an ongoing exhibit at the modernist house, shows the home as Edith Farnsworth inhabited it the 1950s, including furniture she sourced from the women-owned store Baldwin Kingrey. Photo by William Zbaren.

On Nov. 17, the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, took a new name: the Edith Farnsworth House. This five-letter change marks a small but significant gesture in the decades-long effort to tell the story of one of America’s most famous modern homes, designed by Mies van der Rohe, without silencing the woman who lived in it on her own, paid for it with her earnings as a physician, and eventually decided to sell it to someone who would ensure its preservation.

Renaming the Edith Farnsworth House is a high point in the efforts to diversify the sites that we preserve and the stories we tell about them — often by discarding the narrative of the solo male genius.

“The designers, the architects involved — in many instances those were women, or women were part of the team,” says Christina Morris, manager of the year-old “Where Women Made History” initiative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the Edith Farnsworth House. “They were the patrons, they were the owners. Women were responsible for creating the preservation movement and continue to lead it today.”

What It Means to Design a Space for ‘Care’

Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned Central Park as a place where access to nature could foster good health. Photo by Nisian Hughes/Stone RF.

A municipal Department of Care could make sure the trash was picked up and the tree pits were weeded. A Department of Care could pay teens to tend to public spaces and teach them stewardship skills. A Department of Care could check on seniors in a heat wave and basement apartment dwellers in a flood. A Department of Care would start by asking, as urban designer Justin Garrett Moore suggests: What do you need? What do you hope will change? How can we best accomplish this?

Of course, the Department of Care doesn’t exist — yet — but the concept of care as a driver for city planning is already gaining traction. Designers, planners, curators and historians are talking about care for an obvious reason: The pandemic exposed just how much labor is involved in child care, health care, street and park maintenance, and technological upkeep. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke last month at an event hashtagged #CareCan’tWait about the importance of fair pay and training for care workers — and Build Back Better could go even further.

Once people see it, the need for care is hard to unsee. In an architectural context, care links the labor of cleaning with the design of the surfaces to be cleaned, physical infrastructure with social services for its users, landscape with mental health. Care can be demonstrated through org charts and through organizing, through serving food and setting aside land to grow food, through creating public space and training people to take care of it. This is a lot to pile on to a four-letter word — care also has the potential to be just another buzzy term for the same old architecture.

Celebrating a Phoenix of a Home in Los Angeles

The restored, 69-year-old home by Gregory Ain. Photo by Janna Ireland.

When Joyce Poulson was awakened by her fire alarm in the early morning of Nov. 12, 2018, she didn’t see any flames or smell smoke. She went upstairs in her butterfly-roof house in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood to try to turn off the alarm and, failing at that, called the alarm company.

“While I was on the phone a tornado of fire came up the stairs,” she said. “I had to run by it to get to the door. I don’t know how my nightgown did not catch on fire.”

By sunrise it was clear that her 1,640-square-foot, wood-frame home had burned to the studs because of an errant ember that had been trapped, invisible, between the fireplace and the wall. Her insurance company would soon call the historically important building a total loss.

Today, the 69-year-old house, originally designed by Ain, Johnson and Day for Marjorie M. Greene, an artist and early childhood educator, looks as fresh as it did in 1952. It has been painstakingly restored by Escher GuneWardena Architecture, thanks to archival research, preservation of the remaining structure and forensic reconstruction of the plans as even the original blueprints, stored in a closet in the lower floor, were burned to char.

Finding Julia Morgan

“Why aren’t women in the history books?”

Since 2002, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation has worked to remedy this egregious omission, through research, creating websites, making short films, and now … a podcast. Welcome to New Angle: Voice.

I’ve been fascinated by Julia Morgan since I wrote this profile of her for the New York Times Overlooked series and contributed to a new online biography. It was an honor and a pleasure to serve as editorial advisor for this new podcast series, which launched last week with Episode 1, Finding Julia Morgan.

Subscribe and listen to New Angle: Voice now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, on Google Podcasts, and the BWAF website.

How To Remember Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers

Minoru Yamasaki and a model for the College of Education Building at Wayne State University / Bettman via Getty Images.

In the 1990s, there was no New York City skyline without the Twin Towers. They hobnobbed with Lady Liberty and the Empire State Building on any souvenir plate or T-shirt. They flanked Superman or supported King Kong on movie posters. They were such markers of Manhattan as to be critic-proof.

The centrality and iconicity that made the World Trade Center a target — the biggest buildings in the biggest city in the U.S., two for one — gave many a focus for tributes in the wake of their destruction, 20 years ago, on Sept. 11. From memorial flowers and candles on the Brooklyn Promenade overlooking their absence, to calls for rebuilding, to the twin searchlight beams of the Tribute in Light, to the eventual form of Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s 9/11 Memorial — where the towers’ exact footprints are rendered as eternal voids — the Twin Towers were celebrated as symbols of strength.

But it wasn’t always this way. Both the towers and their architect, Minoru Yamasaki, were criticized upon their completion, with racist and misogynist language dogging their Japanese American designer. The Twin Towers, which at first seemed a career-making commission, ultimately sabotaged Yamasaki’s career and confidence, their long double shadow putting everything he designed after 1973 in the shade.

A Bunch of MOTHERS!

Grace Jones in Jean-Paul Goude's Constructivist Maternity Dress; New York, 1979.

This week marks the publication of Designing Motherhood edited by Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick. I was honored to be asked to contribute a foreword to this groundbreaking collaborative publication and exhibition on the design of all aspects of becoming (and not becoming) a mother. You can read my text as well as an interview with the curators at Design Miami.

“There is nobody against this—NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of . . . a bunch of MOTHERS!” Waiting for his turn to speak at a hearing about the city’s plans to run a divided roadway through Washington Square Park in New York, parks commissioner Robert Moses had heard enough. Although Jane Jacobs and Shirley Hayes, the chief organizers of the Greenwich Village group that had arranged photogenic picket lines of children opposing the loss of their play space, had yet to have their say, Moses was incredulous that they might prevail. Despite his close study of the levers of power, he had failed to consider how those traditionally considered the weakest—women and children—might win a public relations battle. They did so by transforming a subject, motherhood, that women were by their nature supposed to know best from a private concern to a public one, moving it from the home to the streets.

Their protest described an arc that is repeated again and again in the design objects whose stories are told in Designing Motherhood. This arc connects the personal to the political, the interior to the city, and transforms us versus them to, in the end, simply us—because we all arrive here via some process of birth and, at some point and in some way, we all mother. The designs in this book go beyond binaries and biology.

Department Stores Reborn in a Post-Pandemic World

Illustration by Sam Island.

About 40% of U.S. department store outlets have closed over the past five years. Many of the large, boxy structures that house them, where prom dresses were purchased and perfume sampled, will be demolished. But some will be put to new uses.

Why repurpose department stores, the supposed white elephants of the retail world? Property owners and designers are becoming aware of the cost savings and environmental benefits of adapting older buildings rather than tearing them down. Beyond that, many urban department stores have high-quality historic architecture, prime downtown locations, big lower-floor windows, and lots of open floor space. Suburban stores are often plain and windowless; inside, however, they have the same large floor plates, as well as key locations near highway interchanges. (No wonder some stores have been converted to temporary Covid testing and vaccination sites.)

“The big urban question of the 1980s and 1990s was what to do with former industrial areas of all of our major cities,” says Owen Hopkins, director of the Farrell Centre, a research hub for architecture and planning at Newcastle University in England. In the 2020s, he says, it’s “What can we do with post-retail spaces?”

In a Warming World, Consider the Mist Garden

Mist Garden by Quennell Rothschild & Partners in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens. Photo by Ismail Ferdous/Bloomberg.

When the Unisphere made its debut at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, the stainless-steel representation of the planet was surrounded by a turquoise pool and rings of powerful water jets, whose leaping plumes echoed the curves of the globe. Radiating from that central basin were the Fountains of the Fairs, including a 310-foot-long stepped pool initially surrounded by bands of colorful flowers.

The visual and aural effect of this waterfall fountain was dramatic, even symphonic: The constant sound of flowing water followed fairgoers as they explored the pavilions along the paths radiating from the Unisphere. This feature was also high maintenance. By the 1970s, the flow had been turned off, and even a pump repair in the early 2000s proved short-lived.

In the summer of 2021, the water at the Fountain of the Fairs finally got turned back on — not as falls, but as fog. Fog is an atmospheric effect that has shown itself to be environmentally responsible, ephemerally beautiful and large-scale spectacular in artists’ hands many times before.

Flushing Meadows-Corona Park’s $6.8 million “mist garden” was the result of input from the Queens communities that live near the park, New York City’s fourth-largest, as well as shifting priorities for the city. The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation was looking for a water feature designed for cooling off, rather than decoration, that would also conform to the city’s new usage restrictions of no more than 25 gallons per minute. A water feature that would delight, but also be visually strong enough to stand up to the 140-foot-tall Unisphere.