Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

City-wide playtime should be a post-pandemic goal

After over a year of online schooling, missed friends, cancelled sports, closed playgrounds, and hundreds of days spent indoors, Alexandra Lange wants to let kids lead the way this summer.

Lange, a design critic and author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, says making space for play is important right now.

“I feel like the bottom line of what the pandemic and the quarantine have denied a lot of people are those moments of, like, coming together and joy. And play just seems like this shortcut to us getting back into it and being able to use those muscles again,” Lange said in an interview with Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

Teen Girls Need Better Public Spaces to Hang Out

"Swing Time" by Höweler + Yoon Architecture.

When the playscape Swing Time popped up in Boston in 2014, visitors started having too much fun. The 20 hoop-shaped swings suspended from a white shade structure light up when in use, glowing purple with vigorous motion. Its creators at Höweler + Yoon Architecture had imagined people would swing in ones and twos. Instead groups tried to pile on together, hoping to share the sway and have a conversation.

Susannah Walker, co-founder of the newly created British charity Make Space for Girls, saw in Swing Time something that would have delighted her 17-year-old self. “At the end of the summer holidays my friend and I ran out of money,” Walker wrote in a March post. “We had nothing to do and there was nowhere to go. So we’d go and hang out on the swings in the early evening and chat as the light slowly faded into dusk. It was better than sitting around at home.”

She highlights Swing Time to illustrate two points: One, girls love swings. And two, there aren’t enough swings made for teenage girls. “They are almost always placed with the equipment for younger children, so that if teenagers use them they are seen as invaders.”

There also aren’t enough spaces for teen girls. Where aren’t teenagers seen as invaders? They are too big, too loud, too old for playgrounds, at least in the eyes of parents; and too young, too loud, too broke for restaurants, bars and stores. The problem is magnified for teen girls who, surveys show, are less likely to use the basketball courts and skate parks intended for adolescents, and run the risk of harassment, or worse, when they appear in adult spaces.

Let’s Declare This the Summer of Play

Philadelphia's Playstreets. Photo by Ken McFarlane/Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

On July 5, 1976, Philadelphia capped off the nation’s bicentennial celebrations not with flags and fireworks — all those grand displays were held on the 4th — but with play. Frisbee Golf on Winter Street. Paper airplanes at Logan Circle. Kid-sized pick-up sticks at 20th and Parkway. Music was provided by a giant xylophone and kazoos on Park Town Place and a Jamaican steel band at 22nd Street.

This grand day of play was organized by Bernie DeKoven, a game designer and “fun theorist” who believed “being at play together is being in flow together,” quoting psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, known for his theory that humans are happiest in a state of absorption within an activity. Given the right environment, given permission to join in the fun, humans have the ability to “form play communities.”

After more than a year of closed schools, shuttered playgrounds, canceled sports and called-off birthday parties, the idea of a “Playday on the Parkway” like Philadelphia’s or, better yet, many play days on many parkways, sounds like just the sort of freedom and collective boost our children need. If it was a sign of patriotism in 1976 to open the streets and parks to fun, the symbolism would be even more powerful now. Let the children — not the cars, not the delivery trucks, not the Zooms — find their flow. Let’s declare this the Summer of Play.

The Open-Plan Office Was an Auditory Disaster

Air-conditioned open plan offices at Lever House.

Offices, particularly the open plans touted for their creative collisions, were designed to foster interaction. Designers and promoters of the open plan compared it to “a busy restaurant or lively cocktail party,” writes Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler in her recent book, Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office, “where the general ambient noise of the space masked the individual conversations such that one could reasonably have a fairly private conversation despite being surrounded by people.” But as Robert Propst, the Herman Miller designer known as “the father of the cubicle” soon found out, most workplaces required a little more masking, and so the plans intended to spark our creativity also spawned a new set of designs to fix the noise.

In 1976, the Acoustic Conditioner was born. Each spherical conditioner, set atop a slender stalk, could be clipped to the top of a padded Action Office partition and was intended to “condition” the atmosphere for workers within a 12-foot diameter while looking like a George Lucas reject.

Colossal Ambition

Photo by Serena Eller Vainicher.

When designing an apartment with a view of the Colosseum, the first rule of architecture should be: Get out of the way. But that was not what the previous owners of this top-floor, two-story Roman apartment had done. The ceiling was low, the room was filled with columns, and there was a big box in the middle of the floor covering the mechanical equipment for the building’s elevator. “From the first moment, it wasn’t only an interior project,” says Massimo Alvisi, who with his wife and partner, Junko Kirimoto, took on the two-year renovation, completed just before the pandemic.

To make matters even more complicated, the apartment needed a new roof, a challenging maneuver in the center of a historic city like Rome, where, he notes, “everything you do has to be approved by the heritage board,” from the color of the outside stucco to window shapes and sizes.

But Alvisi Kirimoto prevailed, managing the complex process of getting stone, wood, glass, and steel up from the narrow streets to the penthouse, where a pitched roof now presides over a wide-open living space, with a raised stage that both covers that equipment and improves the angle on the Roman ruins from the blocky Gaetano Pesce sofas.

Career Talk Times Two

Two institutions asked me to discuss my career and work this spring, and video of those talks is now online.

“Looking for Role Models in All the Wrong Places,” given March 10 as part of ETH Zurich ATHENA Lecture Series 2021 is here.

And “Writing as Critical Praxis,” an April 8 panel organized by CE+ and LUNCH at the UVA School of Architecture, with artist and architectural historian Esther Choi is here.

How to Save (and Live in) a Masterpiece of Modern Design

Photo by Bill Maris.

“New rules or no rules?” asked Architectural Record in 1961, reviewing four recent projects by Paul Rudolph, then the chair of the department of architecture at Yale. The flashiest of the four was presented first: a two-story beach house under construction high on the dunes of Ponte Vedra, Florida, outside Jacksonville.

The House of Seven Levels was a shining example of “the new freedom” of Rudolph’s work, a home in which there was very little need for doors, or walls, or even furniture, thanks to built-in storage, ceiling heights and floor levels that varied to create spaces both cozy and dramatic, and cushions that could be arranged around the central conversation pit for a big old party. From the pit, guests had a picture-perfect view of the ocean framed by concrete walls deep enough to shade the glass from the sun.

From the beach the house looked like a series of squared-off caves, itching to be explored. At the residence, which was commissioned by lawyer and arts patron Arthur Milam in 1959, even the indoors felt like outdoors, and relaxing in the pit could feel like chilling on the beach in the shade of a giant umbrella.

Going to School in a Dead Mall? Not Such a Bad Idea.

Cat Cutillo/Seven Days.

A Michael Kors sign in the cafeteria. Teachers posing in front of a Levi’s ad. A library in the shoe department. Classroom walls — that didn’t even reach the ceiling! — cutting across three types of flooring. The photos of Burlington (Vermont) High School’s new home, the former downtown Macy’s, that hit the internet last week weren’t pretty. “The high school I went to was found to have unsafe levels of toxic chemicals so they built a makeshift school in the Macy’s in the town’s abandoned mall, and I have never seen something more dystopian” tweeted the Washington Post’s Aviva Loeb.

But I saw something different. Two things, actually: (a) a thousand kids going back to school during a pandemic in one of the few spaces in the city big enough to accommodate them at safe distances. “This just kind of feels like a place we can call home, you know? Kind of our place now, where finally we can just be again,” Wyatt Harte, a BHS senior, told local TV station WCAX on March 4, reopening day.

Back In Shape

Photo by Max Burkhalter.

Some people consider renovations to be a trial; decisions and discomfort are borne for the end result. Others consider renovations a creative act, a process that is just as much of a reward as a home tailored to your exact taste. The clients for this luxurious yet laid-back 4,000-square-foot, four-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill neighborhood were firmly in the second camp. “Together, we’ve renovated two apartments, and we built a house from the ground up on the Jersey Shore,” says the wife, a lawyer. “Our last apartment definitely leaned traditional. Our beach house was midcentury modern. Over time, we’ve become more interested in taking some design risks.” She and her husband, who works in finance, were looking for a younger designer, one who thrives on collaboration with craftspeople. “We live in a city that is filled with artists and talent and creativity, and we wanted to harness that in our home,” she says.

They found their match in Michael K. Chen Architecture, a nine-year-old practice known for bold colors and bolder juxtapositions of materials, eras, and shapes. “They asked me specifically to challenge them a bit,” says Chen.

Mask Up! It’s the 2020 Architecture and Design Awards

By Mark Lamster & Alexandra Lange

It has been a year, people. COVID-19. Economic collapse. Political madness. Social unrest. Fire. Mank. Through it all, we’ve been keeping tabs, marking down who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, so we can bring you, for the 11th consecutive year — !!! — our annual architecture and design awards.

With no further ado, here’s what we’ll remember from this year to forget:

Design of the Year: The mask. Cotton, silk, knit, disposable, novelty, high fashion, political, N95. Whichever option you have chosen — and you better have chosen one — no human-made object has had more impact on our lives in 2020.
Chemosphere Prize: To Dua Lipa, who had us levitating with her John Lautner call out on the title track of our favorite album of the year, Future Nostalgia.

Playskool Badge of Dishonor: Trump’s itty-bitty widdle desk. It should have been colored plastic, for design consistency, but as with all else in his benighted administration, it wasn’t thought through.

Richard Scarry Vision Award: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s bizarro kiddie art “New York Tough” COVID poster left us speechless.