Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Building your values

Photo by Simon Luethi/Ford Foundation.

When the Ford Foundation’s 12 stories of mahogany-colored granite, Cor-Ten steel, and transparent glass opened on 42nd Street in 1967, urban observers saw it as a gift.

Designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates with Dan Kiley as landscape architect, the building—comprising offices for the foundation’s several hundred employees, all wrapping a vertical indoor botanical garden—could have been two and a half times larger as of right.

The Ford Foundation didn’t have to open its garden atrium to the public, either. What was considered so benevolent five decades ago, however, doesn’t seem like gift enough in 2018. Good design, quality materials. Public-facing design, quality materials: these remain elements that we praise but, as critics of the time noted, they should be the minimum. For a philanthropic organization like the Ford Foundation, the challenge was to apply those 21st-century values to a monument of the 20th century.

Continues: Curbed

Every City Should Have a Toy Library

Mr. Rogers visits the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library, 1986.

On July 30, 1942, then–New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was uptown in Harlem, playing with toys.

“Harlem Gets First Toyery,” announced a Paramount newsreel heralding the opening of the neighborhood’s first toy-lending library, a storefront on West 135th Street stocked with 1,000 playthings and sponsored by a branch of the Domestic Relations Court.

Ida Cash, a city probation officer, had conceived of the “toyery” in the late 1920s upon “contrasting the barren homes she found with the happy lot of her own children.” Philanthropic New York women decided to support the project, likewise concerned that children were being arrested for stealing toys.

By the 1930s, the Heckscher Foundation for Children ran two toyeries where children could play with toys, check them out, and make crafts. Others followed suit. A consensus had formed that, as with playgrounds and book libraries, funds should be set aside for playing with toys. Monkey bars worked their bodies, reading worked their minds, but there was something else, something both physical and mental, that happened when they worked their fingers. Imagination. Socialization. Freedom.

Continues: The Atlantic

A museum grows in Houston

Scholar’s Cloister, Menil Drawing Institute. Photo by Richard Barnes.

When Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection building opened in 1987 critics called it “just perfect.” Johnston Marklee’s Drawing Institute improves on perfection

Is it an insult to say my favorite part of the museum is the trees?

Not in the case of the Menil Collection campus in Houston. The opening of the institution’s latest building—the Menil Drawing Institute, on November 3—was also the occasion for replacing a diseased tree with a 25-year-old live oak, which arrived wrapped like a sculpture and necessitated closing a street.

This particular tree was on an open lawn opposite the Menil Collection building, the two-story Renzo Piano-designed pavilion that opened in 1987 and launched Piano’s career as architect of silvery rectangles with complicated roofs, as later seen in Basel and Chicago and Dallas and New York and Los Angeles. The first is the best—and was for many, including me, a revelation of how a museum could be.

Continues: Curbed

Amy Fusselman reviews The Design of Childhood

The author of one of my favorite books on playgrounds, Savage Park, reviews The Design of Childhood in Metropolis Magazine.

I particularly appreciated this bit:

Lange occasionally ventures into more personal territory, including anecdotes from her own childhood, and from her experiences as a mother of two. These asides are appealing in the way they round out her scholarly work, offering readers the acknowledgement that it’s nearly impossible to divorce one’s own childhood experiences, as well as one’s experience as a parent, from understanding design for children. In detailing the origins of the Tripp Trapp chair, for example—the well-known, and famously adjustable, Scandinavian wooden kid seat—she reveals that she had bought her older son one of these chairs when he was two, thinking he would hand it down to his sister four years later. “Nine years on,” she writes, “he is still using his (orange), and we had to buy a second for her (plum).” She then adds, in a wry bit of mental reframing surely familiar to many parents: “I had to consider them an investment.”

Continues: Metropolis

Well played

Monstrum Fish, Chelsea Waterside Park, Manhattan. Photo by Max Giuliani, Hudson River Park Trust.

When Monstrum, a Danish playground-design firm, was asked to make playgrounds on the roof of the Lego House in Billund, Denmark, they knew one thing: they couldn’t be made of Lego. The exhibition building is full of Lego-based installations, games and, above all, playbricks, as visitors are encouraged to build whatever their imaginations conjure. The new playgrounds had to have the same sense of creativity without being made of movable parts. “Since the playgrounds are up in the air we decided to have everything mounted firmly into the ground, in order not to risk anything being thrown overboard,” says Jesper Vilstrup, general manager of the Lego House.

Instead Monstrum, which has built an international portfolio of playable fish, rockets, spires and birds, took the adventurous scenarios depicted on boxes of Lego as inspiration and decided on a theme: “How to get to Lego House”. Each area of the playground would be like a snapshot of a journey. There is a submarine caught in a fish net attacked by a sea monster, a hot-air balloon landing in a cornfield full of scarecrows, a helicopter made of wood and raised up high on thin steel poles that illustrate air currents whipping around it. The steel poles aren’t just for show: children can climb them to get to the helicopter, slide down to make their escape or ignore the vehicle above and simply swing between them. In each scenario, the child pilots his or her play, deciding how high to climb and how deep to descend into whatever adventure narrative they have devised. The playgrounds are stage sets, and the children are actors writing their own scripts.

Continues: 1843 Magazine

What Shapes Our Children’s Independence?

I discussed The Design of Childhood with Matt Katz at WNYC.