Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

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 for 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.

What money can’t buy

Illustration by Party of One.

No one wants to receive a dud gift, but in a year when a pandemic has narrowed our experiences, stuff has a heightened allure. It’s hard not to feel especially invested in the idea of shopping well, of swashbuckling through the retail landscape to find just the right thing.

So, for this bizarre holiday season, The Washington Post asked Ted Chiang, Jenny Odell, Ken Liu, Sara Hendren and Alexandra Lange to dream up the presents that they’d love to parcel out this year but that don’t exist.

My response to this prompt? A magic box.

The Unbearable Banality of Romance Novel Décor

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

“Sweetheart, we could strip out everything and start fresh, maintain the look outside. Go modern minimalist on the inside. White walls. Black and gray furniture. It would be so open and airy.”

Modern minimalist? Something died inside Kincaid. “You can’t be serious,” she blurted out.

Something died inside me, too, as I read these lines in Roni Loren’s romance novel The One for You. The first speaker, an Austin architect, wants to turn a gorgeous, needs-work farmhouse in Texas wine country into an urban loft. Clearly the only reasonable thing for the book’s heroine to do is buy it out from under him, protecting the house’s good bones from going the way of every fixer-upper in Waco. And thank goodness for that. I wish more characters in romance novels had Kincaid’s backbone, interiors-wise.

Romance has a serious décor problem. Contemporary romance novels, my pandemic escape of choice, provide a wide variety of settings, pairings, relationship dynamics, and even kinks. But the world of romance has settled, it seems, on a default style of interior design for its heroes. Every time I read about yet another “modern minimalist” living room—let’s just say it kills the mood.

Where the Teens Are Hanging Out in Quarantine

Photo Illustration: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

If summer 2020 in Brooklyn had been anything like summer 2019, my 13-year-old son would have been at camp, sleeping in a tent, sending me monosyllabic postcards and, in moments of downtime, playing a game called Mafia. The role-playing game, created by Dimitry Davidoff in 1986, splits a cabin full of campers into two groups, the mafia and the villagers. During the “night” — eyes closed — the members of the mafia pick off one of the villagers. During the “day”— eyes open — the remaining players try to figure out where evil lurks among them.

Instead, this summer, my son was at home, sleeping in a bed, learning how to be a Dungeon Master, sending me monosyllabic texts from another room and playing an online game called Among Us. The online role-playing game created by developer InnerSloth in 2018, splits a spaceship full of astronauts into two groups, “impostors” and “crewmates.” Impostors pick off the crew and sabotage the ship’s systems. Crewmates try to do their jobs and figure out where evil lurks among them.

Among Us is one of a number of unexpected beneficiaries of the global pandemic. In 2018, as Quartz reported, only 30 users were playing the game at any given time. In September 2020, 3.8 million players were playing the game at once. Many of the first people to bolster that trend were teens, who spotted it on the streams of several Twitch celebrities.

Screen time, often demonized as destructive to interpersonal relationships, has come to resemble a life raft (or escape pod) for families that have found there is such a thing as too much togetherness. Platforms including Discord, Roblox and Minecraft have transformed in response to users’ needs — and adults are starting to take notice.

Hideous? Perhaps. But It’s Time to Accept the Gaming Chair.

Herman Miller and Logitech’s Embody: sleeker, lighter, somewhat less Xtreme.

It has been a long time since the world found a new chair. But in the apartments and dens of mostly young men and women, across from the soon-to-be-upgraded PC and multiple screens, there is one, introduced in the past decade and a half: the gaming chair, built for stress-free full-body support when the keyboard and heavy-duty mouse come out. It’s wheeled like an office chair, but it’s also something else. Although both types support the spine, with seats and armrests intended to keep knees and elbows at the optimal ergonomic 90-degree angle when playing or working at a desk, gaming chairs generally accommodate a greater range of movement. Many of the seatbacks can recline to 135 degrees, for cockpit-like play, while the armrests can be adjusted front to back, side to side and angled toward or awry from the body. They also typically come with adjustable pillows to support the lumbar and neck. Is a gaming chair sports equipment? Is it an office chair? Is it personal billboard? The answer is all of the above, and the boundaries are collapsing.

Spaces Podcast: Designing for Childhood.

Alexandra Lange, design critic and author, joins us to discuss designing for childhood. From groundbreaking concepts in early childhood development to the environmental dangers we’ve created in cities, Alexandra shares the extensive insight she gained while researching for her latest book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.” We dig into the external forces that have evolved and shaped the world around children – blocks, homes, schools, playgrounds, and cities.

Spaces Podcast · Designing for Childhood