S K Y L I N E | Crushing Specificity
Agroecological Urban Forests, Pedagogy in the 1960s, The People’s Program, Hemp Lime Blocks
Issue 102. According to polymath Al-Ghazali, everyone in Heaven remains at age 33 permanently. We never wanted to go to Heaven anyway. Subscribe as we get to #34.
There is a prevailing discordance in architecture. “Beautiful” architecture has been deemed a moral failure, a manifestation of misspent resources and capitalist excess. This implicit critique, along with material limitations and profit margins dependent on standardization, has led to a proliferation of prosaic buildings. Regardless of what or who pays for new construction, government subsidy or plutocrat, blame is inevitably heaped onto architects for their limited imaginations or imperfect politics. The arguments have become recursive and self-evident. Architecture is too siloed; architecture assists oppression; ambitious architecture is evil; everything is ugly. When we apply broad-stroke cynicism, generalist proposals, and Twitter catchphrases to questions that require crushing specificity, it is easy to assume we’ve reached a terminus. In that vein, we asked six writers to reflect on our predicament.
This week’s events focused on particularities: Denise Scott-Brown’s path-breaking pedagogy in the 1960s, the influence of the oil and gas industry on the future of Louisiana, the aggregation of species and landscapes that made rice the essential crop it is today, the occupation of Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx by a coalition of activists to counter the heroin epidemic, and more. The range of topics covered suggests that we may not be at a terminus but at a waypoint.
— Kavya Cherala
In Bushwick there’s a Burger King awash in animal print vinyl, elaborate neons, movie posters, booths modeled after Cadillacs, and granite plaques with faded celebrity photos. Untouched since the 90s, it’s uncanny, but endearing in its persistence. When we bother to make things beautiful (even visually interesting) we commit to the tastes and preferences of our time, with a bold conviction that these will be our tastes and preferences forevermore. Compare that to any recently renovated McDonald’s: interiors stripped completely bare, a single unused cash register replaced by pathetic flat screen stele. Rather than queuing, customers poking at screens scatter in a perfectly random distribution, while an employee shoos an Uber Eats worker from across the counter. (His load will be delivered through a tiny window off to the side.) It’s an architecture of places we don’t want to be in and don’t wish to remember. It mistakes blankness for timeless neutrality. Within 30 years, it will become just as dated as the Burger King, but it will inspire no fondness.
— Allison Hewitt Ward
On a quiet block near the Pitkin train yard in East New York, a dazzling, polychromatic jungle gym leaps from the ground in a defiant act of whimsy. Designed by artist Mimi Gross, the tot playground at Robert E. Venable Park finds glorious inspiration in the theme of human anatomy. Twin slides spill forth from the nostrils of a massive plastic nose; kids cook up jazz jingles on notated chimes and giggle to one another through ear-shaped talk-tubes. In the optic section, friends may jaunt between playful profiles of the retina or peer out at their playmates from a periscope. Nearby, one can even traverse a spinal cord bridge before catching their breath in a hollowed stump shaped like a giant’s foot. Sticking its tongue out at the false populism of aesthetic modesty and architectural penny-pinching, Gross’ playground at Venable Park is a jovial, sui generis public structure that dares to be conceptual, zany, and even a bit strange. The kids seem to love it.
— Jonathan Marty
It’s hard not to be numb to the barrage of architecture awards given out each year, especially in categories reserved for public buildings, where commendation can simply seem like a recognition of any gesture made in the name of highbrow design, regardless of usability. (See: Hunters Point Library.) However, Marine Park, Brooklyn’s largest park, has the distinct honor of being the only place in the country whose plans were awarded a silver medal at the Olympic Games in the category of Town Planning. While Charles Downing Lay’s award-winning vision was never realized (ultimately due to the projected cost), I want to make the case for retroactively awarding the park the gold medal.
In addition to rectifying the historical wrong of the Nazi Reich Sports Field in Berlin winning the gold in the 1936 games, honoring Marine Park would be a symbolic victory for humble public recreation facilities in a world replete with praise directed towards vanity projects constructed with public money. As the Parks department succinctly puts it on their website, “Marine Park has plenty of room to serve a lot of needs.” It may not be flashy, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to play cricket in Brooklyn. Your move, IOC!
— Michael Nicholas
Two years ago, real estate agent turned president Donald Trump issued an executive order “to promote beautiful federal civic architecture”. Though revoked, the purpose of the move was to “inspire the American people and encourage civic virtue”. Demands to redefine a “people” by the contradictory name “new classical architecture” is on the rise across the world due to a questionable mélange of historical, political and cultural list of justifications. New Traditional Architecture is now a nativist stance against so-called degenerate modern and globalist architecture. Rebuilt palaces and ornamented infrastructure become arenas of local chauvinism and a manifestation of classism. When the style symbolizes opulent real estate, the past itself becomes a luxury item, relegating those who can’t afford it to a purposefully bleak, contemporary mode of living.
— Ido Nahari
Given our supremely visual culture and advanced technical resources, it’s puzzling that so many uninspiring buildings continue to be built. Either a lack of perspective makes us nostalgic for a more beautiful past, or a shared ideal of architectural beauty no longer exists. A way out of this paradox is to bring architecture’s aesthetic, moral, and technical qualities together, by emphasizing a great “background architecture” (think Hausmann’s Paris, the Sears Catalog homes, or even Brooklyn brownstones); one that relies on experiential, rather than visual description, and unapologetically acknowledges the material means at hand. The risk of mediocrity runs high, and the result might be perceived as too modest to be engaging or of critical value, but the hope is for a renewed debate on what we consider “beautiful.”
— Daniel Heuberger
In Municipal Dreams, John Boughton’s conclusive book on UK council housing, he writes that Neave Brown is said to have favored “[the] return [of] housing to the traditional quality of continuous background stuff, anonymous, cellular, repetitive, that has always been its virtue.” In American practice, however, the municipal machine of planning boards, developer clients, and value engineering pushes us to break up massing and curate special moments but build cheaply. Subtle-but-banal forms are deemed scarily modernist and no one trusts understated design on a budget. I say to my friend who works on social housing in London, where there exists a blanket assumption of brick and balconies everywhere, “it’s almost as if the zeitgeist has arrived again, or never left.”
— Sam Naylor
2/8: Teaching Prowess
NEW HAVEN (ZOOM)—The first panel of the symposium built on the chapters of Swiss architect and historian FRIDA GRAHN’s Denise Scott Brown In Other Eyes: Portraits of an Architect, was moderated by SURRY SCHLABS (historian and teacher at Yale) and included lectures by CRAIG LEE (Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago), VALÉRY DIDELON (Professor at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Normandie), and KATHERINE SMITH (Art History Professor at Agnes Scott College). Lee’s lecture explored Scott Brown’s African view of Las Vegas and “what she brought to (and out of) the Las Vegas Studio study publication.” Didelon, joining via Zoom from Paris, discussed Scott Brown’s “important contribution to American intellectual life by relating her writing with Susan Sontag’s.” In the third lecture, Smith studied the “often elusive” works of pop art and artists in Learning from Las Vegas. The panel concluded with comments from Scott Brown herself.
— Brandon Koots
2/10: Legacy Preservation
LAGUARDIA PLACE—“The Athens Charter can go to hell!”, claimed a virtual DENISE SCOTT BROWN, among other polemics, at the Center for Architecture last Friday to the audience’s delight. At 95, the architect, planner, photographer, essayist, and trailblazer doesn’t miss a beat. The event featured presentations by contributors from Denise Scott Brown In Other Eyes: Portraits of an Architect. Grahn’s volume features essays by practitioners and academics—including Hilary Sample, Mary McLeod, Joan Ockman, Sylvia Lavin, and Jacques Herzog—that discuss different aspects of Scott Brown’s legacy. “The interior of someone’s home is a mirror of themselves. It’s who they are. This is how I wanted to capture Denise,” said LYNN GILBERT, a photographer who took now-iconic portraits of Scott Brown in her Philadelphia living room five decades ago. Toward the end of the night, Denise brought the conversation from the 1960s into the present by discussing the future of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London. One of VSBA Architecture and Planners’ signature projects, completed in 1991, the Sainsbury Wing on London’s Trafalgar Square is set to undergo a massive renovation by Selldorf Architects which, according to Scott Brown would render the project “unrecognizable.” What does the Sainsbury Wing’s future hold? It’s too soon to tell, but Denise Scott Brown isn’t letting it fall by way of the wrecking ball.
— Dan Jonas-Roche
2/9: Shallow End
HARVARD GSD (ZOOM)—Curious about how the people of Amazonia continue to organize themselves around our contemporary problems like managing waste, moving around, finding a place to live, and landing relationships, I tuned in to ANA MARIA DURAN CALISTO’s lecture. Unfortunately, Ana Maria spent the first hour on South America's shallow, more recent history. She spoke to her studio courses that had explored housing in the Galapagos and Columbia. Along the way, she adequately brought the audience up to speed on colonial land relations and extraction in the region. In the last thirty minutes, she briefly covered how the land has resisted colonization and its large-scale infrastructure by troubling western notions of land and water separation. She also showed a series of maps and mentioned Afro-Indigenous communities. Either because of a shortage of time, the nascent stage of her research, or a failure in my understanding, I left the lecture unsubmerged in the deep history of the agroecological urban forest.
— Michelle Mueller Gámez
2/10: Data Plan
COLUMBIA GSAPP—At the Future Present Symposium, discussions between IMANI JACQUELINE BROWN and ELAINE GAN, as well as SAM LAVIGNE and FARZIN LOTFI-JAM, were centered around technology, ecology, activism, and computation in the built environment. Brown focused on the relationship between the oil and gas industry and the future of Louisiana, the second-poorest state in the US. Gan’s presentation, titled “Crops As Computation,” examined the varieties of rice in the Philippines by yield and traits. Lotfi-Jam presented “Architecture Computer Collaborations,” which examined the relationship between technologies of the home and the state, how immigration and smart home sensing devices had a relationship with each other”. Finally, Lavigne's Scrapism played up “scraping” information off websites to create web-based projects that deal with surveillance, data, and automation. He talked about his project New York Apartment, a project that “combines the totality of New York real estate into a single website, sourced from every single for-sale listing in New York City.”
— Ronak Gandhi
2/13: The People’s Detox
THE NEW SCHOOL (ZOOM)—On November 10, 1970, a coalition of the Young Lords, Black Panthers , and the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement occupied the sixth floor of Lincoln Hospital, setting up a detox clinic to counter the heroin epidemic ravaging the South Bronx. The next day, hundreds of people lined up to receive treatment, legitimating the takeover and cementing its place in the community for the next eight years. Using harm reduction techniques and a socialist critique of capitalism, the coalition combined medical treatment with therapy-as-political-education, orienting “the people toward a revolutionary approach,” as WALTER BOSQUE, a licensed acupuncturist and a certified NADA trainer stated at the lecture. The guiding motto of The People’s Detox (the third seminar in a series of twelve) was “You weren’t born an addict, you were made an addict.” Their point was clear: addiction is a political problem and requires political solutions.
The Young Lords’ takeover of Lincoln Hospital is a direct action worth remembering. It was not simply an occupation but a liberation of city space. Programs such as Correcting Mistaken Ideas do a vital service in presenting instances in which New Yorkers took revolutionary charge of their lives and communities and an even greater service in reminding us how—with enough optimism of the will—we can radically change our circumstances.
— Souli Boutis
2/13: Malleable Formwork
LAGUARDIA PLACE—Water takes the shape of whatever vessel contains it. Speaking about her new book Occupation: Boundary: Art, Architecture, and Culture at the Center for Architecture, CATHY SIMON, in conversation with landscape architect LAURIE OLIN and editor ASHLEY SIMONE, discussed water’s ever-shifting, multivalent qualities. Referencing artists from Michelangelo to Robert Smithson, Simon traced water’s role in the development of the modern city, showing images of the industrial piers of Lower Manhattan and San Francisco. Water is also a site of leisure—people gather at swimming pools and beaches—and of fraught histories. Many of the world’s most oppressed people live near the waterfront, pushed to the flood-prone shoreline by racist and classist systems of power. And, the waterfront is also home to plenty of luxury development. One need only stomp along the High Line, which Simon paradoxically remarked was “so busy no one goes there anymore” or purchase a $25 ticket to Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum to understand this. There is no one way to understand the water; just as we begin to grasp it, it changes shape again.
— Kevin Ritter
2/14: Path of Circulation
HARVARD GSD (ZOOM)—“It was a big adventure,” remarked ADÈLE NAUDÉ SANTOS of a past creative endeavor during her speech for Harvard’s annual Jaqueline Tyrwhitt Urban Design Lecture. This statement could be applied to Professor Santos’ entire oeuvre, showcased in a presentation well-seasoned with witty anecdotes and dazzling architectural landscapes. The architect mapped her life’s narrative as a visionary both in architecture and beyond, starting in Cape Town and most recently operating in California and Tokyo. Her approach to staircases, building them in conversation with the exterior by accounting for the flow of sunlight through windows, was particularly memorable. Santos managed to present her decades of creation as tangible and fresh in the modern day.
2/15: Organic Architecture
SOHO—A packed body of research was presented by LTL ARCHITECTS, LOLA BEN-ALON, MAE-LING LOKKO, and JONSARA RUTH at the second event in a series curated by the Architectural League of New York.
The panelists eschewed the thin-skinned excess of modernism and concrete in favor of earthy, fibrous thickness: corbelled 600-lb straw bales, precast hemp-lime blocks. They derided the membrane-enforced binary of inside-outside, preferring a traditional barrier wall that allows heat and moisture to absorb and disperse, like the 12” thick masonry that clads New York’s early high rises. The panelists acknowledged that their research requires unearthing old practices while ensuring compliance with modern codes through careful testing of design mixes and construction methods.
Ben-Alon detailed a wall section with protruding limestone “check” courses that cleverly bond masonry, and shed water. Lokko waxed poetic about the forgiving beauty of natural variations and their compromised performance. Ruth noted the short supply of the agricultural machine that extracts the hemp pith from the stem and the possibility of the machine traveling through the hinterland. Someone in front of me modeled what she called an “apple core accessory”—a slice of the fruit fixed to her hair clip—and the ethos that waste is just misnamed material.
— Jacob Gurin
NYRA ON THE TOWN
2/15: Untapped Design Journal Launch with Michael J. Love
LUDLOW STREET—The inaugural issue of Untapped, a new design journal, features articles about temporality and industry, performance, Black aesthetics and the art world, public housing, novel materials science, and, of course, architecture. United by the assumption that the past informs the present as well as the future, the articles in the fledgling publication coherently express historic considerations and questions in the emerging niche space of brand publications. Sponsored (but not constrained!) by the boutique firm, Henrybuilt, Untapped stands as an independent publication worthy of attention from a wide creative audience.
At the lively launch party, held at Sommwhere on the Lower East Side, tap dancer MICHAEL J. LOVE performed a moving number that traversed the history of house music and other Black performance traditions. Articulating the music’s kicks and claps in a playful interpretation of Chicago’s dance music, Love tapped out a sonic education through dance as well as a carefully curated musical accompaniment. The performance underscored the thematic thrust of the journal and centered the audience’s attention back toward TIFFANY JOW’s editorial achievements on behalf of Untapped and Henrybuilt.
— Rachel Bondra
EYES ON SKYLINE
In Skyline 101, readers were most interested in Assemblage Play.
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IN THE NEWS
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