Category Archives: Urban design

Ideas of Home at UCSD and MOMA

Foreclosing on the Familiar

“Fallen Star,”  by the Korean born artist Do Ho Suh, is the newest sculpture installation at the Stuart Collection on the campus of the University of California at San Diego and debuted this week with more than a thousand visitors on opening day. It’s a small gabled cottage that has somehow crashed into the

roof of a seven story engineering building and now teeters over the edge… perhaps the Wizard of Oz was aiming for an advanced degree. It’s definitely a mortarboard mash-up. According to Mary Beebe, the collection director, “It was his idea and we produced it.” From the rooftop the house appears only a little off

kilter, but then as you peer over the railing you see that only engineering — i. e. the cantilever — is holding it up. It may be an art piece but it’s also a strong advertisement for structural daring. (“Go forth ye graduates, and engineer!”) The work explores Suh’s “on-going exploration of themes around the idea of home, cultural displacement, the perception of our surroundings, and how one constructs a memory of a space.” When he arrived in the U.S. from Seoul, Korea in 1991 to study, Suh understandably felt un-moored, which “led him to measure spaces in order to establish relationships with his new surroundings. He had to physically and mentally readjust.” The permanent installation is clever in the way it literally and figuratively readjusts — indeed, upends — the romantic notion of home, acknowledging that in today’s reality it remains both fixed and floating — or fleeting — for many.

In my mind this work is really a last minute West Coast entry in the current exhibition “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which I saw last month. The purpose of the show, organized by MOMA architecture curator Barry Bergdoll and which runs through August 13, is to explore new architectural possibilities for cities and suburbs in the aftermath of the recent foreclosure crisis. Five teams of architects, planners, ecologists, engineers, and landscape designers were asked to produce proposals for housing in five different suburban communities, from Temple Terrace, Florida to Rialto, California. The result is a series of essentially utopian schemes. I was most drawn to the solution called Nature City, for Keizer, Oregon by WORKac, a design firm in Manhattan. Inspired by the Garden City concept

espoused by influential late 19th century British urbanist Ebenezer Howard, (detail of part of a garden city plan shown above, courtesy Our Letchworth), they proposed developing a 225 acre parcel (already slated for big box stores and the like) in a way that is  “five times denser than the adjacent suburban blocks but

has three times the amount of public open space, including a 158-acre nature preserve.” The idea is to create a symbiotic relationship between structure and site with a wide variety of housing types, from attached town homes to towers tocourtyard houses and long blocks like this “Cavern Building” with huge park-like pass-throughs and lake-like pools; the latter, glass-walled and three stories deep, is especially ambitious! The most arresting feature is a series of parks and pools that spiral around a great dome that collects methane from a mound of solid waste and produces compost, while waste heat warms public pools at the rooftop. It’s an architectural circle of life — a rose is a rose is a Compost Hill. The show’s other four schemes offered equally suggestive architectural solutions for new construction (one, by Studio Gang, even inserted new housing into the shell of a derelict factory) but none addressed how to deal with existing neighborhoods where foreclosures are rampant — the house on the brink, as it were, to steal Suh’s metaphor. In the end that is the harder question.

9/11 Memorial, Plus-Pool, and the Power of Design

Water Work

The power of design was made evident to me once again when I visited the recently completed National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York
When you get to the site – which is surrounded by seven skyscrapers in various stages of construction – your visitor pass is inspected and you enter a long line of switchbacks that, after about half an hour, leads into a small lobby where you pass through x-ray machines – as if you are boarding a plane – and

then go out again down a blue walkway, around a corner, to the park itself,

which is a geometric expanse of granite pavers and lawn under a forest grid of swamp white oaks. (The Memorial museum is not yet finished.) Ahead are the two vast 200 feet-square, 30-feet deep pools — one tracing the footprint of the north, the other, the south tower of the World Trade Center. Wide balustrades — dark bronze waist-high, slightly tilted tablets inscribed with the names of those who died in the towers, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93 — rim the top of each thundering cascade.

Architect Michael Arad had wanted the names to line walkways behind the falling water at the bottom of each pool, which would have turned the water into a veil of tears and would have given each visitor a more private experience, but security concerns made this impossible, hence the inscribed slabs at the top.

The sound of the rushing water and the sheer expanse of dropping space draws you ineluctably to the edge. It is the 21st century equivalent of Frederick

Church’s famous painting of Niagara Falls of 1857 (image courtesy The Corcoran Gallery of Art). The scale of the opening and the volume of the water is mesmerizing. But now it’s not just the power of nature we

are witnessing but the power of human nature we are enshrining. My first thought was that the design is too repetitive but then I realized that it isn’t — since the names are all different — and anyway the towers were twins in presence and must be twins in absence. And at the center of each dark pool is a further, darker chasm, where you can’t quite see the bottom and the water falls into emptiness. Thus the monumental scale and the depth-within-depth describe the collective loss itself, both literally and figuratively.

The ingenious weir at the top turns the water into a painterly element.

The long airfoil shape made of comb-like tines breaks the sheet of water into individual strands that then recombine in a thin curtain of silver to flash in the sunlight. The weir also spreads the flow evenly, maximizing its apparent volume while minimizing actual water and energy use.

Landscape architect Peter Walker — who worked with Michael Arad — spoke of the way the design is about filling and emptying at the same time (as I mentioned in a previous post about Walker’s talk at the Monterey Design Conference), and this seems especially apt, for a memorial is about filling a void that cannot be filled and holding memories that must not be forgotten. This is abstraction at its most elemental and powerful — like nature itself.

In the Swim

On a lighter note, one of my daughters made me aware of another approach to water in New York that is both wonderful and crazy: the cross-shaped multi-purpose Plus Pool (four pools in one) designed to float in the East River and that is being proposed by Dong-Ping Wong of Family Architects, and Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin of PlayLab.

They got hot last summer — “So we proposed a pool. More specifically, we proposed a pool that uses and filters the very water that it floats in. A pool that makes it possible to swim off the shores of New York, in river water, that’s clean.”

The engineering firm Arup devised a filtering membrane that makes the clean water possible.

And the four-part configuration allows for a variety of swimming styles.

Through a Kickstarter campaign they have raised enough money to test the filtering system. Ingenious. Part of the power of design is thinking outside the pool.

Monterey Design Conference 2011, Part Deux

Begin With A Body Wall

The architectural conversation sponsored by the California Council of the AIA at Asilomar last weekend was very rich and has taken me a while to process, hence the continuation from the previous post. Take, for example, the very corporeal “P_Wall” commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from architect/computer artist Andrew Kudless and shown in his talk. Andrew is on the faculty at California College of Art and founded the Matsys design firm.

When Andrew projected the image above and talked about his interest in how certain structures form in nature, my first reaction was — what is it for? Is it architecture or art? According to Andrew it’s an “exploration of the self-organization of material under force.”

The  wall is made of one hundred fifty cast plaster tiles. According to Andrew “using nylon fabric and wooden dowels as form-work, the weight of the liquid plaster slurry causes the fabric to sag, expand, and wrinkle.” The idea, as I now understand it, is to show how an architectural element — the gallery wall — and one’s skin might overlap (dewlap?!) in form and function. I first thought of Gertrude Stein’s poem “A Long Dress” which asks: “What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current. What is the wind, what is it.” Now I begin to see that this folding, bulging line could be the current Gertrude describes. SFMOMA design curator Henry Urbach saw in this wall connections to the organic work of Antonio Gaudi, and now I can see that — a wall that’s both architecture and art, with a nature all its own. I get it now, and I like it, but I wouldn’t want to live with it.

Iconic Homes

The house was another topic of exploration at Asilomar, and we were treated to a talk by Duluth, Minnesota architect David Salmela, whose award-winning work is both modern and regional, like this abstract approach to the sauna

(photo by David Getty, courtesy Minnesota Monthly) or his Jackson Meadow project,

a neighborhood development that manipulates a vocabulary of traditional wood gables and porches in strong contemporary ways (photo courtesy Jackson Meadow). David talked about “looking for the ingredient that defines a place” and designing “to solve the problem and not necessarily to please people.” But I think his work has pleased many because it has an iconic simplicity that always involves a strong connection to nature. A new book on his work has just appeared:

by Thomas Fisher from the University of Minnesota Press. I like the fact that each of David’s projects is very different while at the same time sharing similarities in the use of geometric forms and  natural materials. In his talk he spoke of “emulating, not imitating” other architecture — and I can see visual connections to the work of architects as diverse as Alvar Aalto, Adolph Loos, and Ray Kappe.

Soaring Farms  and Falling Fountains

Two talks seemed to galvanize the architectural audience. The first, by Dr. Dickson Despommier, an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Columbia University, described the Vertical Farm Project, explained in detail in his book.

The aim is to counteract world food shortages that are projected to occur  by 2050, when the world’s population will have increased by 3 billion. He writes “At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?” His ingenious solution is to find ways to farm in buildings situated inside the city limits — a way of rehabilitating derelict structures as well as developing new architectural prototypes, like the example shown below: “Urban Farm, Urban Epicenter”  

by Jung Ming Nam. I liked Dr. Despommier’s statement that we tend to treat the city as a parasite (a consumer of resources) when we ought to be looking for ways to make the city’s relationship to the planet symbiotic (more of a partner in the cultivation of resources). He ended his talk by showing a recently completed building in Suwon, South Korea, shown below,

 designed for this very purpose. (A fine article by Lloyd Alter on Treehugger describes how it works; photo courtesy Spiegel Online.) The Vertical Farm is on the rise!

Eminent landscape architect Peter Walker drew rapt attention for his story of working on the World Trade Center Memorial in Manhattan with architect Michael Arad. It turns out that when Arad was selected as one of the 8 finalists, he called Walker and asked him to join his team. Arad’s concept of the two vast voids (each 200 feet square, outlining where the towers had been) endlessly filling with water yet draining into a smaller central void, had already been established but he needed help with the landscape.

Walker, a devotee of modern art, immediately responded to the abstraction of the Arad design, recalling minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd and Carl Andre. He understood that the final design needed to be “strong enough for memory,” and designed the grid of mature trees for the park to act as buffer/transition from the city — planted in a complex architectural infrastructure that he devised — and by working with experts to invent the weir that allowed a large volume of water to fall as efficiently as possible in a continuous curtain — no small feat.

 (These two images courtesy Auhana.) As he said, the fountains were to be about “filling and emptying done at the same time.” The names of those who died form a parapet at the top. As Peter Walker talked I began to understand the extraordinary metaphor for grieving that Michael Arad and he had created:  the fluid welling up in memory as a way to salve, but not wash away, the sorrow. Peter received a standing ovation. Suddenly this little conference center in the sand dunes seemed part of a much larger world.

Shaping Inspiration: Aqua Tower to Home Plans

New Waves in Nature vs. Nurture

I heard a fascinating lecture by architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang recently. She talked about the unusual wave-like design of her soaring 82-story  Aqua Tower (including apartments, condos, and a hotel) built by McHugh Construction and Magellan Development Group in downtown Chicago. The compelling design derived in part from studies of view corridors and wind patterns — and was also partly inspired by images of limestone cliffs along the Great Lakes, as shown here and which were themselves created by water and wind (photo courtesy Immaterial/Supermaterial, Woodbury University).  The myriad shapes of the curvilinear concrete balconies “confuse the wind” (i.e. slow it down) and give each apartment a sense of individuality (Aqua Tower photos courtesy The International Coolhunting Magazine). In most cases the curving balconies shape views and shelter living spaces from heat and glare. Where balconies are not feasible a different glass — with higher insulation value — is used. The reduced overhangs and use of a different type of glass (which is tinted a greener color) make it appear that ponds have formed on each of the tower’s vertical surfaces. Reusable, flexible steel forms for the cantilevered concrete balcony sections made the construction possible.

The lesson I drew from Jeanne Gang’s talk was that a her firm does a great deal of research into site conditions and the natural and  cultural histories of an area before developing a particular design. The design is thus “drawn out of the site.” (A new book on their work titled Reveal from Princeton Architecture Press explains this process.) This is a good way to think about home design as well — the house plan and the lot should complement each other. Mentally place your plan on your site and check to see if any key outdoor spaces are easily accessible, or if you should replace a window with a door.  This Plan 64-166 by Dan Tyree uses balconies and window walls to maximize views on a steep slope. Plan 500-1 by Robert Swinburne has  a side-facing bay window, which means its lot should have  room for a side yard.  In Plan 498-5 by Matthew Coates glass folding doors could replace the conventional sliders as a way to open up more of the great room to the patio. Indeed, I think every ready made plan should be modified to suit its site.


I asked Jeanne Gang how she got such a remarkable tower commission and she said it was mostly serendipity. A client invited her to a party and she met a developer who said he was interested in her work and would she consider a project he was starting. Sure, she said, thinking nothing would come of it. A few days later she got a phone call asking for a meeting in a few days. She assumed it was a competition so she quickly prepared a Power Point on her firm’s deep experience and award-winning past projects.  But when she got to the meeting the developer said he already knew her work and already had hired her and how soon could she have a design ready? “It was the most unusual and easiest commission we’ve ever gotten!” she said. Another lesson: you never know who is watching your work — or if the next plan you click will throw a curve and strike your fancy and become your dream house!

Bridges and Starter Homes

Architect for all Reasons

Donald MacDonald is a renaissance man: architect, illustrator, bridge design consultant, and writer. He designed the tollbooths for the Golden Gate Bridge and is consulting architect for the new Eastern Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. His most recent book, written with Ira Nadel, Golden Gate Bridge: History and Design of an Icon, (Chronicle) is full of fascinating drawings like this one

showing color schemes for the towers proposed by the US Air Force and the US Navy (apparently the Air Force wanted orange and white stripes to make the towers more visible to aircraft — looks to me like the bridge in pajamas), and this one comparing

tower heights. The book is a fun read, especially in the section on toll collecting: “Collectors have been handed everything from dead fish to live kittens, pizzas, fruit, and even loaded guns. Drivers have been proffered money in their teeth, behind their ears, and between their toes.” All this bridge banter is simply to demonstrate how multi-talented is the architect of our most recent exclusive house plans.  Donald MacDonald is especially interested in the small home for the first time builder/buyer and has evolved a range of inventive stock plans over the years. Here’s his Starter Home Plan 511-1.

It’s a tiny gabled box — a deftly designed micro cottage of 238 square feet.

The view below shows a small table at the center of the space;  a sofa faces the fireplace. It’s basically a kitchen/living studio with bathroom and closet along one side. A sleeping loft is above. Donald told me he wanted to make it straightforward enough that a do-it-yourselfer could build it. Innovation is in the unit’s expansion potential. By adding similar units, like this,

with one unit sliding by another to make a series of small courtyards, you can create a house for a variety of site conditions. This plan is also illustrated in another book by MacDonald: Democratic Architecture: Practical Solutions to Today’s Housing Crisis (Whitney Library of Design).

MacDonald’s Cottage Plan 511-2 is somewhat larger — at 400 square feet — and  two stories.

Various facade treatments are possible. This one shows a wood grid — a modern twist on the half-timbered look. There are two cottage variations;

one with garage, living area/ kitchen on the ground floor and two bedrooms above; the other with two bedrooms on the ground floor and living area/kitchen above.

The high ceiling makes the upstairs living room feel light and airy.

Plan 511-3 is a very slender row house.

With these designs Donald works with variations on very simple forms — I would call them his Monopoly row house series  — and shows how each plan can provide comfort and character on a very small lot. No suspension spans here — instead, bridges to better living. Welcome, Donald MacDonald!

Maps and the Modern Home

The Lure of the Layout

Maps always capture my imagination — they’re a way to travel without the expense of actually going anywhere. And they can turn any room into a destination resort or a learning center.  I have noticed an increasing use of city maps — or  city plans — in everyday objects. I like these paper place mats showing


New York,

and Tokyo, for example. They’re from A+ R Store. What a great way to explore the world while you’re having breakfast.

Wall maps remain a popular decorating feature, and not just for a child’s room. Historical views of cities and towns often included street maps along with streetscapes, like this 19th century view of Marysville, California


complete with vignettes of commercial and residential buildings. It’s from the extraordinarily rich collection of images and manuscripts chronicling the history of the western U. S. at U. C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and is available at Zazzle.  Frame it and you have an instant curiosity.

One of the most famous urban maps of all is the so-called Nolli Map of Rome from 1792, drawn by an architect named Giambattista Nolli,

including the floor plans of all the major monuments. Here’s a detail from it showing Michaelangelo’s  layout of St. Peter’s Basilica

and Bernini’s colonnade reaching out to embrace and define St. Peter’s Square. The Nolli map is a particular favorite of mine and has now been reprinted by Raven Maps with the University of Oregon – so it’s easy to own.

In a somewhat different, but no less structurally-oriented vein — my mother, who once worked for the American Red Cross as a disaster relief coordinator, is fond of weather and seismic activity maps like this one

from USGS recording the history of earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area and has one in her kitchen (all those yellow dots are epicenters — no wonder we’re a family of fast eaters…).

Such maps are, to my mind, all related to floor plans. In fact, some of our designs,

like Daniel E. Bush’s Modern Plan 460-6, are definitely worth framing! Keep them in mind the next time you’re looking for a conversation piece.

Public Plazas: Permanent to Temporary

Macro to Micro

What makes a vibrant and memorable  gathering place? In architect Robert Gatje’s visually compelling and insightful new book Great Public Squares (W. W. Norton, 2010) — a collection of his drawings and writings —

it has to do with material, pattern, scale, and spatial dynamism, not to mention history and complex socio-economic forces. Bob forces us to think more deeply about why certain public places are so memorable to us. He has drawn forty public squares to scale so you can compare each central place with its surroundings. His cover image of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, essentially a remodel by Michaelangelo, is especially seductive. It captures the force field that is the swirling oval pattern at the center appearing to pull the two flanking facades off kilter, crimping them toward the entrance even as they appear to slide past the building at the center. This intense play between space and structure, which is a function of all great public spaces, has always interested architects.  Bob makes these ideas visible in vivid new ways.  Look at his drawing of St. Mark’s Square in Venice:

and you immediately see how remarkable the square’s long sweeping flank is, both as a rhetorical gesture and as a virtual demonstration of civic power, clearing away the clutter of urban density while making a virtue of it at the same instant. Also see the way St. Mark’s Cathedral thrusts into the square instead of simply forming a boundary to it; how the island that is the campanile lets space — and often tides — eddy around it; and how the colonnades wrap the square in a layer of theatricality that connects everything to the  Grand Canal itself. It’s all so vividly expressed in the  modeled shadow, light, and vibrant color.  You’ll find similar visual analyses of such landmarks as New York’s Rockefeller Center, the Place Des Vosges in Paris, and Prague’s Old Town Square.

I asked Bob how this book came about. Here’s what he said:

“The inspiration is in the small black and white plans of Camillo Sitte (late 19th century Austrian architect and city planning theoretician) that he drew at the same scale to let architects get a comparative idea of his favorite squares.”

{NOTE: Here’s an example of Sitte’s drawing of the Place de l’Etoile in Paris, courtesy Cornell Library.}

“I just quadrupled Sitte’s scale to 1:1000, added color and shadows, and there we were.” A great idea, Bob!

OK, so if you don’t have five or six hundred years, a cultural renaissance or two, a sovereign treasure, and ample travertine and other long lasting materials — what can you do? The little town of Hercules, California, north of Oakland, might offer a lesson.

Here’s the ribbon cutting ceremony for their new market place/food hall/shopping/event park. Hercules — where dynamite was once manufactured — had evolved into a bedroom community with no central place for public events. Enter The Red Barn Company, an enlightened Newport Beach-based developer of new communities, which persuaded the city to provide a temporary use permit to convert an undertilized transit parking lot into a miniature multifunctional gathering place called Hercules Market Hall.

Here’s a shot of the market place “spine” where each boutique is made from recycled cargo containers.

Here’s the food hall, with Korean barbecue and Mexican taco trucks just visible parked along the wings. Every structure can be dismantled and moved. I visited on opening day and was impressed: hundreds of people enjoying a variety of activities and each other’s company. It’s the brainchild of  Red Barn founding partner Tom Weigel, who told me he was excited– and relieved — to see so many people enjoying themselves. It’s quite literally a moveable feast and might offer a template for other communities in need of central meeting zones. The Hercules Market Hall will move to another location when the housing development gets under way. The dynamite is in the temporary details!