Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Beyond Architecture: The Fantasy Worlds of Phyllis Birkby

Noel Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

Pushed to the side and rarely credited for her architectural work at Davis Brody, Phyllis Birkby became a significant figure in extending the lesbian women’s movement to architecture during the 1970s. Her Environmental Fantasy Workshops played a crucial role in galvanizing the community, providing a creative and empowering space within a male-dominated profession.

Growing out of other consciousness raising techniques, freed up in her classes, Phyllis released the rigor of her conventional training to get down on the floor, and lead the group in sketching their fantasies — however outlandish — on giant rolls of butcher paper.

Birkby’s work not only contributed to architectural discourse but also fostered a sense of collective identity among lesbian architects, highlighting the intersectionality of gender, sexuality, and professional identity in the field. In her later years, she focused on architecture for people marginalized in other ways – by addiction, by age, and by disability, again imagining spaces of community and support.

Immersive Museum Exhibits for Kids Know How to Compete With Screens

The scene at The Rabbit hOle in Kansas City, Missouri.

In the great green room (just off the bookshop) there was a telephone (oversized) and a red balloon (hung from the ceiling) and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon (above the fireplace). Lift the telephone’s handset — a novelty unto itself for the under-10-year-olds — and the son of Goodnight Moon illustrator Clement Hurd reads that book’s alluring, rhythmic first pages, calling out each element in the room (phone, balloon, cow).

Transfixing, for the child not otherwise distracted by three-dimensional versions of other objects pictured in the book, like the toyhouse (big enough to crawl inside), the mittens on the drying rack (detachable) or the glowing electric flames (cosy).

This scene would be enough to capture the attention of most children. But as visitors to “The Rabbit hOle,” a new 45,000-square-foot (and growing) immersive experience in Kansas City, Missouri, will soon find, there is always another twist to this story. Tug on the fake fire and it moves as one piece, bringing the andirons, logs and fireback with it. Through an arched opening, one can see white floors and painters’ tape.

“In the next phase, this will lead to the Tons of Fun room,” says Emily Hane, development and grants manager for this sprawling North Kansas City museum devoted to children’s books.

In the world down the rabbit hole, first dreamed up by artists, co-founders and former booksellers Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid in 2015, Goodnight Moon leads to John Steptoe’s urban stroll Uptown, which leads to Tomie de Paola’s Italian village tale Strega Nona, and on and on, winding through building environments from one beloved story book after another. As they make their way through the museum’s levels, carved from a former warehouse by architects Multistudio, kids groove in Harlem or read a book under a chapeau-bedecked tree, bake a pie with Sal’s mother or check to see whether Klassen’s bear really did eat that rabbit.

“Not everyone knows what they want or need until they see it,” says Cowdin. “We build this and it is like, plop, in the middle of this phone-driven world it is a total place of relief for people.”

Goddess of Small Things

Image from the Eames Collection at the Library of Congress © Eames Office

Originally in print in Ideas Spring 2024.

For Ray Eames, hosting meant transforming the everyday into a performance.

Architecture critic Esther McCoy wrote, in a posthumous tribute to Ray Eames, that the Eames House “was a framework for the display of rich objects.… a showcase for what Robert Venturi called ‘the good Victorian clutter.’” Ray seemed to accumulate clutter like breathing. Her small chamber at the Eames Office held wrapped gifts too pretty to open. The drawers and walls and shelves at the Eames House held collections of combs, kites, Japanese lanterns, Mexican pinatas, many of which would later turn up as decoration for Herman Miller showrooms, or illustrate the House of Cards.


Illustrations by Rob Wilson.

Originally in print in August Issue 07, Utopia.

In 1963, 429 Broome Street became an art-world address. James Rosenquist and Ron Westerfield each rented a floor of the narrow corner building, with a cast-iron storefront below and marble facing above, for $125 each, part of the first wave of artists replacing textile wholesalers and machine shops in Soho. The upstairs floors, with windows practically to the floor on two sides, were perfect for painters. The ground floor, shoebox-shaped and also with big windows, would need some work to make it mysterious.

In 1968 Ruffin Cooper Jr., a twenty-four-year-old former talent agent, took an $8,000 loan from his Texas banker father and advertised in the Village Voice, “Wanted: carpenters to work for free on experimental nightclub.” John Storyk, a twenty-two-year-old recent Princeton grad working days at an architecture firm and practicing with his band at night, answered the ad. Cooper and his partner, set designer Bobjack Callejo, showed him a model of a long, windowless narrow room with little round tables and described the “sensorium” they had in mind.

Storyk realized they were in over their heads – “You can’t just walk in off the street, where are all the projectors, they hadn’t really thought this through.” But he said, “I said, I’ll bang nails for free if you let me design this.”

Swing Sets Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore

The 20-swing Megaswing at Anna C. Verna playground. Photo by Caroline Gutman/Bloomberg.

A swing can be the simplest thing: two chains attached to a board, a rope knotted through a disc, a chair suspended from above. Swings appear on ancient Greek vases as instruments of leisure, and in eighteenth century Thailand as vehicles for competition.

That’s the thing about swings: They can be sociable, but they are also physical. This inviting duality has often been undermined by public safety standards, which discourage swings for more than one person and mandate that they be far apart. After a certain age, swinging solo loses its thrill.

But at Anna C. Verna Playground at Philadelphia’s FDR Park, on the south side of the city, the largest swing set in North America was designed to test those limits. Not by creating unsafe play, but by transforming those standards into something challenging, unusual, beautiful and rewarding for swingers of all ages.

Laying the Groundwork: Women in American Architecture

In this episode, we revisit the first significant effort to publicly tell the under-told stories of American women in architecture: “Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective.”

On view at the Brooklyn Museum from February to April of 1977, the groundbreaking exhibition and simultaneous book, curated and edited by Susana Torre, defined the state of play for women in the architecture profession.

Alienated by the profound hostility expressed by the AIA, women architects found an accepting cohort at the Architectural League of New York. We organized. We canvassed. We raised our consciousnesses. The project team identified subjects so previously obscured as to be unknown, and then with the energy and drive of a furious mob, they broke through and laid the groundwork for scholarship, social change, and recognition of women architects for the next fifty years.

How Design Promotes Better Mental Health for Children

Mass timber and prefabricated elements make Ohana a potential prototype. Photo by Ty Cole.

A clinic designed by NBBJ to incorporate light and nature is part of a sea change in the way that psychiatrists approach children’s behavioral health.

On film, mental health facilities designed for children are too often pale and plastic. Think of the linoleum-floored corridors of Girl, Interrupted, the institutional green trim of It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Behavioral clinics for youth are aggressive in their lack (of color, of amenity, of detail), underlining patients’ separation from the outside world by aesthetically aligning mental health treatment with medical intervention. Fluorescent lights, the sound of a turning lock, barriers to entry, barriers to exit.

In most places, the reality is not so far off from the cinematic stereotype. Both mind and body may be in crisis, but do they need to be treated — architecturally — the same way?

“When people come into emergency rooms, when they need surgery, they expect to be passive recipients of care in sterile spaces,” says Susan Swick, executive director of the new Ohana Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health in Monterey, California. “When you come into a space for mental treatment, these are not passive treatments. It is critical that we engage a child’s curiosity, their sense of agency, rather than surrender.”

Buildings Speak

Marking International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s History Month for 2024, the national women’s advocacy group Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation has announced commitments by more than a dozen major National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate stations to air the new one-hour special Buildings Speak: Stories of Pioneering Women Architects, hosted by Academy Award-winning producer and performer Frances McDormand, a collaboration with the Peabody Award-winning radio producers, The Kitchen Sisters.

Drawn from New Angle: Voice, the award-winning podcast series created by executive producer Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA, alongside the acclaimed producer Brandi Howell and noted writer and editor Alexandra Lange, Buildings Speak features insights from the lives of pioneering women architects Julia Morgan (1872—1957), Amaza Lee Meredith (1895—1984) and Natalie deBlois (1921—2013).

Color Games

Can the pink-and-blue divide in toy design ever fade away?

Many pairs of eyes stare out from the toy shelves at Morning Glory, a stationary store in Flushing, Queens. Big eyes. Small eyes. Eyes that can be made to blink. Eyes with lashes, and eyes that are a perfect circle. But as you scan, with your own, human, blinking, squinting eyes, from one end of the aisle to the other, you notice something: All the eyes are on one end—the pink end. On the other—the blue end—the eyes are replaced by a different round thing: wheels.

On the pink side, Chelsea Can Be, a doll from Mattel’s line for kids too young for Barbie, plays out a narrative of female empowerment with accessories for teaching, sewing, pet care, and construction. On the blue side, Hot Wheels offers a Fat Ride, or the chance to “dodge the attacking Piranha Plant” with Mario and friends.

“They literally made a diagram for my A.I. Toys,” says artist Ani Liu, filming the scene with her iPhone. “It goes from really pastel light pink to black and red and blue. From nurturing to aggressive behavior.”

As Necessary As Food

Review of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Pedagogical Playgrounds by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, with an introduction by Jane Mah Hutton (Concordia Press and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2023).

“Up, Down and Over” read the headline stretched across the pages of the September 13, 1954, issue of LIFE magazine. The photograph above these words showed a set of half-round monkey bars swarming with children, with a mushroom-shaped concrete spiral slide behind. “Goat Mountain,” pictured in a smaller photo, consisted of a series of biomorphic concrete steps, instant topography on which “children play old standbys like ‘king of the hill’ or…improvise games using tiers.”

The featured playground, at 18th and Bigler Streets in Philadelphia, was part of a concerted push by the city to add new children’s facilities at the rate of one per week. “Designed to be pleasing in line, safe to use and stimulating to the imagination, the new playthings cater to the natural inclination of youngsters to climb like mountain animals, crawl through dark passageways and hang by their heels,” wrote the anonymous LIFE reporter.

Also anonymous in LIFE was the designer of the playground, the 33-year-old landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander; this was her first solo project. Today, Oberlander (who died in 2021 at age 99) is Canada’s most famous landscape architect, thanks to her collaborations with the architect Arthur Erickson on key outdoor spaces in Vancouver, including Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. But those lush, layered compositions were only part of her legacy—the classic big client, major location, major architect part. The other part, as captured in Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Pedagogical Playgrounds, was her lifelong
commitment to “up, down and over”—to learning from, and designing for, children.