Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Buildings Don't Have To Be Bird-Killers

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia.

The narrow stretch that separates Quay Tower from a thatch of bamboo and oaks in Brooklyn Bridge Park doesn’t look like much, especially in winter. Unless you’re a bird.

To a bird, the copper-colored building’s glass is a mirror, reflecting the thick grove of trees and suggesting that the wilderness continues across the road. To a bird, that can be a deadly mistake.

“You see that reflection? To a bird that looks like a tree, that is a tree, and they will go right for the tree,” says Catherine Quayle, social media director at the Wild Bird Fund.

The surprising uptake of birding as a pandemic hobby, along with social media and data collection tools like eBird and dBird, has created new visibility for bird collisions with glass, which kill as many as 1 billion birds in the U.S. per year. At the same time, a new generation of urban parks has given birds more places to roost in highly populated areas. But something else has followed these parks as well: real estate capital. The vogue for urban parks creates more economic impetus to build shiny buildings with big windows opposite those urban wetlands, glades and groves.

Architects have known how to prevent their buildings from becoming bird killers for more than a decade: Toronto was the first North American municipality to implement bird safety building guidelines back in 2010. New York City implemented some laws of its own in 2021. Patterned glass, exterior screens and turning the lights off at night can all significantly reduce bird deaths. But those standards clash with the big glass and big views that clients associate with big money.

Keep Your Damn Mask On! It’s the 2021 Architecture and Design Awards

By Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster

We’ve been doing this for twelve years now, and this was, without question, the hardest it’s ever been to come up with these “awards.” The year was grim from the start, and architecture was deeply implicated. It kicked off in January with the desecration of the Capitol, in June we had the catastrophic collapse of the Surfside condo tower, in August the Vessel closed after a fourth suicide, September brought the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, and through it all the pandemic has marched its way through the Greek alphabet. So yeah, it’s been a rough twelve months.

But it is the holiday season, a time for cheer, and we’re back with our review of the best and worst in architecture and design for 2021. And so … on to the fake prizes!

Is There Any Damn Place to Sit Down Here Award? To Diller’s Folly, a.k.a. Golf Tee Island, a.k.a. Little Island. The thing cost $250m and there’s not a bench in shade to be found. But lord is there a lot of fencing.

A Hollywood Agent's Jaw-Dropping Desert Home Comes Into Cinematic Focus

Design by Kovac Design Studio. Photo by Roger Davies.

Did we mention the 5,000-square-foot sun shade?

What does it take to make a getaway truly relaxing? For some people, it’s communing with nature. For other travelers, it’s spa services. For weekenders, it can be a home away from home. For Todd Feldman, a film and television agent at Creative Artists Agency, it was not having to choose. His seven-bedroom, 9,200-square-foot vacation house at the private Madison Club in La Quinta, California, designed by Kovac Design Studio and completed in 2020, is Palm Springs pad as boutique hotel, with Mad Men flourishes and a museum-worthy outdoor canopy, a bar ready for Out of Sight–level seduction, and a concession stand stocked for Fight Night.

“Often, when you’re lucky enough to be invited to someone’s place, there is that little bit of awkwardness,” Feldman says. “You get up in the morning, and if you are an early riser like I am, you’re standing there by the coffee machine and you haven’t yet brushed your teeth. Or even when you’re having a great night, some people want to go to bed a little earlier. There’s a push-pull.”

threesixtyCITY: Designing Cities That Care

“Care” has become urbanists’ watchword of late, nearly two years after the pandemic exposed a crisis of care for children, seniors, and cities alike. More recently, the urban designer Justin Garrett Moore has called for a “Department of Care” to manage the public realm, while new models of care-based cohousing are among the exhibits on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s new exhibit, “A Section of Now.” But what does it mean to design for care, and is this just the latest buzzword, destined to be hollowed out? For the season finale, we’re joined by Alexandra Lange, author of The Design of Childhood, to discuss what it means to care.

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.