Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

That Cardboard Bed Was Supposed to Be a Utopia

Yes, you can have athletic sex in a cardboard bed. The rumor that the cursed COVID Olympics in Tokyo was promoting celibacy through flimsy furniture has since been debunked, but that doesn’t mean that those beds aren’t worthy of further scrutiny. It’s not their material that’s weak but the design ambition behind them. Stylish temporary architecture has been a hallmark of Olympic Games past — just look at Los Angeles in 1984, where construction scaffolding became enchanting Pop villages — but these boxy furniture pieces read as designed for forgettability, not engineered to give bodies under stress the best rest.

Why build another box when, since the 1960s, cardboard dreamers have demonstrated that the material can bend, curve and roll, much like the Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan, who went viral on Twitter jumping on one of said beds to disprove its anti-sex reputation? Why build something in white or brown when they could be red, yellow, or blue or have polka dots or Olympic rings?

Once upon a time, cardboard was going to save us all from conformity. “Those beds are pretty basic,” says Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, and the curator of the 2015-2016 Walker Art Center exhibition Hippie Modernism, which showcased some of the weirdest and wildest experiments in temporary living environments of the 1960s. “The Olympic Village is doing it for ecological reasons, and that’s the funny thing. The 1960s stuff was supposed to reflect a new modern lifestyle — it was supposed to be longer-lasting rather than just tossed away after use.” Cardboard attracted attention back then because of its ubiquity as first a byproduct of, and then a design problem produced by, the postwar culture of consumption. Cardboard was lightweight, it was portable, and it lent itself to D.I.Y. and customization. Giving boxes a second life in the home was a positive tweak to throwaway culture.

The Urbanist: The Summer of Play

Quadra by Serena Confalonieri, Milan.

I spoke to Andrew Tuck, host of Monocle’s weekly show The Urbanist, for an episode on the so-called Summer of Play: How can we design our streets to encourage play and give young people back the summer that was lost to the global pandemic?

Realized play projects including Milan’s Piazze Aperte and Hong Kong’s Ocean Park are also highlighted.

The Lesson of Little Island: Less Is More

An aerial nighttime view of Little Island park on June 14, 2021. Noam Galai/Getty.

The architecture critics have already called Little Island “a charmer” and “a handmade Eden.” The new $260 million park just off Manhattan’s west side has been praised for its concrete “tulips,” its amphitheater, and its lush and colorful plantings.

But however beautiful the park is at this point, a moment when the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming and New York City is reopening, there’s a price to be paid for building what a billionaire wants.

As part of the arrangement between media mogul Barry Diller — the prime mover behind the park’s design and development — and the Hudson River Park Trust, the Diller–von Furstenberg Family Foundation has to pay for maintenance and programming costs for the next 20 years, a figure that Diller estimated could add another $120 million. Even if 20 years seems far away now, that’s still a big question mark for the future in a city which invests less in parks than many of its peers.

When New York City parks have long received 0.5% of the city’s budget, and lost $84 million to austerity measures in 2020, Little Island sets a terrible example. It is not gated, but it might as well be, given how complicated, how high-maintenance and how bossy it can be. While it may be Barry Diller’s ideal park, it doesn’t line up with the needs or expectations (or budget) of most of the 8 million plus New Yorkers, many of whom don’t have access to private outdoor space and need room to walk, play, party and sprawl. Sometimes spending less can do more when funders ask their designers to lay out the welcome mat … and then walk away.

How AOC turns a weekend hike into a powerful message

Ndubisi Okoye / For The Times

On the first weekend in May, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went backpacking. According to an Instagram story posted from the trail, the Democratic congresswoman took up hiking in January, soon after the attack on the Capitol, during which her office was targeted by rioters forcing her to hide in the bathroom — an experience she later described as “trauma.”

“Last weekend, a lot of you asked … how I take time off, how I care for myself, which I appreciate the question,” she says in the video, speaking to the camera with blue sky behind her and a pack on her back. Then she turns the phone to show the larger scene: a large, flat-rock outcropping with the landscape falling away behind. “This is one way, we started backpacking right here in New York.”

On Cultural Criticism, Teenagers, and Shopping Malls

Takino Suzuran Hillside National Park / @langealexandra

Thanks to the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Design and Jayna Zweiman for this long interview about my work, how I pick topics, and what a kid agenda in politics might look like.

I’ve read your work in The New Yorker, Curbed, and what seems a million other places over the years, but I didn’t put it together that it was always you. Looking at your body of work, it makes so much sense. I am interested in the arc of your work, how you choose what you research, and the power and importance of being a critic.

Somebody who wasn’t as familiar with my work asked me that a few days ago and we ended up talking about this word “magpie.” I see myself as kind of a magpie. I do think that there’s a through-line to everything I do. And it’s interesting that you see it because I’m not always understanding it when I’m doing it. The mall book is such a great example of that. I feel like it was a perfect topic for me because it’s a really capacious topic. There are so many different ways to look at a mall. That turns out to be a common ground of all the topics that I pick: that it’s not just about one building or one architect. It’s about the relationships between all the different people that make a building. It’s also about the relationship of that building to culture.

Different chapters of the book are more about urban planning or more about architecture, and there’s one that’s mostly about movies, photography, and fiction. All of those things are tied to the mall, the mall in our general imagination. I like topics that let me pretend to be a literary critic and let me be a movie critic, along with being an architecture 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.