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.

How not to cheat children: Let them build their own playgrounds

Play Panels, Central Park, 1967, Richard Dattner Architect. Photograph by Norman McGrath.

It wouldn’t be much of a Play Week on Curbed without our resident expert’s take: Critic Alexandra Lange has been all over this beat in recent years, trekking to Noguchi’s last work, a mega-playground in Japan, and highlighting Aldo van Eyck’s progressive Dutch playgrounds. (This summer she also published, ahem, an entire book on the design of childhood, which scales from toy blocks to city blocks.)

Here, we’re excerpting a section from Lange’s book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, that delves into the adventure playground and its history in New York City. That’s right—there was a time in the not-too-distant past when parents let their scamper over concrete ziggurats and build their own play structures with hammers and nails. Intrigued? Read on!

“The next best thing to a playground designed entirely by children is a playground designed by an adult, but incorporating the possibility for children to create their own places within it,” architect Richard Dattner writes at the beginning of his case history for the West Sixty-Seventh Street Adventure Playground, one of five he would eventually design at the periphery of Central Park. Where Kahn and Noguchi failed before him, Dattner and landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg would succeed.

Continues: Curbed

Is Instagram changing the way we design the world?

Yes.

“Designing from Instagram for Instagram seems like a snake eating its own tail. Everywhere looks like everywhere else and the eye grows tired of bananas or concrete tiles or mirror rooms.”

Quoted in The Guardian on architecture and social media.

Concrete utopia: What does our love of brutalist buildings say about us?

Miodrag Zivkovic. Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska. 1965-71. Photo by Valentin Jeck, courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

First on Tumblr, then on Instagram: frame-filling, deep-shadowed, looming edifices, gray and often looking perpetually damp, pocked by windows, frilled with balconies, enlivened by murals or supergraphics or plants.

But popularity breeds restlessness. Paul Rudolph’s bush-hammered walls? Been there. The Barbican? Done that. Boston City Hall? A thousand op-eds. Flaine? Boutique ski resort. Marina City? Album cover.

The eye needs to travel. So social media gave us more: bigger buildings, more flamboyant and flowing forms, more spectacular settings. Like Yugoslavia: first through the photographs of Jan Kempenaers, widely published in 2013, then through Instagram accounts like _di_ma and socialistmodernism for a daily dose of concrete.

To an American audience the forms, names and locations were strange, adding to the abstraction and the othering headlines: “These 1970s brutalist buildings in Serbia look like Star Wars spaceships,” said Quartz, who filed them under the category “Futuristic Finds.”

It was as if a forest of concrete mushrooms had sprouted and grown to gargantuan size while we were otherwise occupied.

Continues: Curbed

Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: A Close Look at Where Kids Live, Learn and Play

Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

A Q&A with John Williams for the New York Times.

Jane Jacobs, the famed urban activist who thought deeply about the streets and spaces where we live, wrote of children: “Their homes and playgrounds, so orderly looking, so buffered from the muddled, messy intrusions of the great world, may accidentally be ideally planned for children to concentrate on television, but for too little else their hungry brains require.” Alexandra Lange quotes this thought from Jacobs in the introduction to her new book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.” In Ms. Lange’s book, schools, playgrounds, toys and other habitual features of young people’s lives are closely examined: the origins of their design, their strengths and shortcomings, and their short-term and long-term effects on children. Below, Ms. Lange discusses Minecraft and Legos, her surprise at the feminist angle of her book and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

The short answer is I had a baby, in 2007.

Continues: New York Times