Dreaming Big with Barbie’s New Dream House

July 18th, 2011

As I’ve written in this space before, I have a special place in my heart for my old Barbie Dream House. So I was very excited to read that the American Institute of Architects (in consultation with toymaker Mattel, Inc.) was sponsoring a new Barbie Dream House design competition, in honor of the brand-new Architect Barbie.

Architect Barbie, complete with hard hat, blueprints and an architectural model. Photo: Mattel, Inc.

Architect Barbie was unveiled at this past May’s AIA Convention to great fanfare, adding to the more than 125 “careers” that Barbie has had in her 50-plus years of existence. Designed in consultation with architects Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, LEED AP, and Despina Stratigakos, Assoc. AIA, both of the University of Buffalo, Architect Barbie wears a stylish knee-length dress (printed with an urban skyline), black glasses and short black boots and carries blueprints and a hard hat. The doll, which will be available to consumers beginning August 15, even includes a special code that unlocks additional information on the Web that’s related to the profession.

This is all to the good. Despite the fact that women have practiced professional architecture for well over a century, today women make up only 17 percent of the profession, according to the AIA. Setting aside the chronic feminist concerns about Barbie’s superhuman look – tiny waistline; large, waspy eyes and those forever-arched feet that fit only high heels – I am thrilled that Architect Barbie exists to inspire a new generation of girls to enter this still-male-dominated profession.

At the AIA Convention, McAlonie and Stratigakos hosted a series of workshops for 400 local schoolgirls, introducing them to the history of women in the profession and offering them a chance to design their dream houses, too. “At no point during the workshops,” wrote Stratigakos in the online journal Places, “did I hear any girl question her spatial skills or the appropriateness of architecture for women. And that, precisely, is where Barbie’s power lies.”

One of five designs in the AIA’s new Barbie Dream House Competition, emphasizing sustainability, daylighting and modernity. Photo: AIA

To coincide with Architect Barbie’s launch, the AIA created a competition to design Barbie’s new Dream House. After receiving more than 30 submissions, the AIA jury posted the top five finalists on its Web site; people can vote for their favorite through August 1. Just as Barbie is always evolving, so is her house. Not surprisingly, the five competing designs emphasize sustainability and modernity, generally a change from Dream Houses past, which ranged from Victorian rowhouses to a traditional A-frame.

Although Mattel will not mass produce any of the final designs, the competition was conceived as a fun and spirited way to address the world as Architect Barbie might see it. In addition to emphasizing sustainability and daylighting, the designs recognize a modern woman’s need for both public and private realms within a house – places for working, entertaining and retreating. Sadly, most of these prototype houses won’t teach girls much about historic contexts or traditional precedents – save for maybe one design (which got my vote) that evinces some Prairie School-style respect for its surroundings wrapped in an International Style aesthetic.

But that isn’t the point. The point of Architect Barbie and the Dream House competition is to inspire girls to dream big. When I was little, our Barbies were simply princesses and ballerinas and wives. That the next generation of girls might demand much more of their dolls, and subsequently themselves and their environments, is an extremely powerful thing. Kudos to the AIA and to Mattel for making this happen.

(I’ll announce the winner of the competition in the comments section once it’s been posted.)

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A STAR Effort: Getting Students Involved in Preservation

May 13th, 2011

When it comes to revitalizing historic houses, sometimes a little goes a long, long way. A groundbreaking effort in San Antonio, TX, is encouraging college students to volunteer just two weekends and give new life to neglected old houses. Often, their work has a ripple effect and spurs ongoing revitalization in historic areas that really need it. It’s a fantastic service project that should be emulated in other cities.

A house in San Antonio’s Dignowity Hill Historic District, before STAR. Note the divided-light windows, among the house’s most charming features. Photo: The San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation

The STAR project, as it’s called, stands for Students Together Achieving Revitalization. Begun in 2010 by the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, working in a close partnership with the University of Texas San Antonio’s College of Architecture (CoA), the STAR project brings together undergraduate architecture students, along with graduate preservation and construction science students working as team leaders, to work in a deserving historic district that needs rehabilitation.

Supervised by city preservation staff, CoA faculty and volunteer building professionals (and funded entirely by sponsors), the students do a range of tasks, including removing and replacing rotted siding, scraping and painting, repairing historic windows and doing other repair work as feasible. So far, the project has focused on the Dignowity Hill Historic District, a neighborhood of Victorian and Craftsman residences that has seen better days. During the two STAR weekends this spring, more than 250 students gave a total of 13 houses significant exterior facelifts. In some cases, the volunteer professionals addressed more significant structural issues as well.

The same house after STAR. Photo: The San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation

According to Shanon Shea Peterson, the city’s historic preservation officer, the STAR project grew out of a strategic planning process that identified a need for an “early warning system” to identify threatened historic properties and pair them with the right resources to prevent demolition. That led to a targeted pilot effort that illustrated how a range of relatively small rehabilitative measures could do wonders for a single historic house – a mini version of STAR. The Office of Historic Preservation and the CoA had both wanted to promote volunteerism, and the partnership was a natural fit.

Already, STAR has proved to have a high return on investment. According to the city, the direct cost for STAR is less than $750 per house, including materials, supplies and refreshments. Yet the value of STAR to each homeowner ranges from $5,000 to $15,000 per house, taking into account volunteer hours, donated labor by professional contractors and professional staff time.

In addition to applying classroom learning to the real world and feeling the satisfaction of seeing the improvements in these historic houses, the undergraduate students enhance their studies through STAR, as well. One of the city’s key partners is a professor named Sue Ann Pemberton, who teaches a materials technology class that is required early in the curriculum. Pemberton gives the students the option to volunteer for two days of STAR and follow it up with a brief report on the experience or write an extension term paper. Most students choose to participate, Peterson says.

She adds that, in some cases, the students or the volunteer contractors come back on their own to do additional work, or the homeowner picks up where the students left off. In one case, she says, a Craftsman bungalow that was slated for demolition has been brought back from the brink and is no longer in danger of being torn down. The next STAR projects, which may focus on a different historic district, will be held this fall and next spring.

San Antonio gets a gold star from me for this inspiring project that puts faith in both its students and its historic districts. What city will be next?

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New Libraries Turn the Page

April 11th, 2011

I grew up around libraries. My mother is a librarian at the Library of Congress, and she used to take me along to her library science classes when she was pursuing her master’s. As an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, I had a part-time job working in the two main libraries on campus. I felt lucky to be paid to troll through stacks, retrieve rare books and skim through dissertations on I-knew-not-what. I still feel happy whenever I’m in a library.

This month, in honor of National Library Week (April 10 – 16), I’ve been thinking about the current state of libraries – and it’s generally not good. When budgets are squeezed, libraries are often the first to go on the chopping block. This has been a perennial battle here in my hometown of Arlington, VA, and library systems in Baltimore, Atlanta, San Antonio, Arizona and California have all been threatened with cuts recently, too.

Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Martin Luther King Library, whose classical precedents are evident in its order and symmetry if nothing else, sets the tone for newer branches now being built. Photo: David Monack

Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, whose classical precedents are evident in its order and symmetry, if nothing else, sets the tone for newer branches now being built. Photo: David Monack

With this in mind, I am so heartened and impressed by what Washington, DC, is doing with its public library system. In the last couple years, the DC government has built or restored 15 of its library branches all over the city, from the most affluent neighborhoods to the most downtrodden. Not only is the city supporting libraries and literacy, it is also making a high-profile investment in architecture. Led by Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the city has hired several renowned architectural firms for the various branches, emphasizing modern design, community input and sustainability.

No one firm has a lock on the library system’s new look, but it is safe to say that the specter of Mies van der Rohe hangs over the proceedings. The District’s boxy main branch, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, remains the only Mies-designed building in the nation’s capital. Forty years after it was built, it now looks fairly conservative, and even almost classical, in its order and symmetry.

I imagine that traditionalists who would scoff at that statement might also find much to lament in the modern aesthetic of many of the new libraries. For the most part, though, I think the designs fit the multidimensional and complex program that 21st-century libraries must now offer. In this day and age, libraries are no longer simply book repositories, but also community centers, lecture halls, playgroup meeting areas, teen hangouts and more.

The architects involved have also taken the needs, challenges and demographics of particular neighborhoods into account when designing the new buildings. An intimidating, Jeffersonian brick behemoth might be exactly the wrong thing to build, for example, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood desperate to lower its crime rate and get its young people off the streets, while offering transparency and access.

The new Anacostia Library in Washington, D.C., one of more than a dozen new design and restoration projects that are energizing and renewing the D.C. Public Library system. Photo: Freelon Group

The new Anacostia Library in Washington, DC, one of more than a dozen new design and restoration projects that are energizing and renewing the DC Public Library system. Photo: Freelon Group

Take the new branch in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood, designed by the Freelon Group, perhaps most famous as the designer of the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. The building has a horizontal, human-scaled appearance, abundant windows and a bright roof scheme, as well as several sustainable elements such as recycled materials and a vegetative bioswale outside. Since its opening last year, the branch has greatly enlivened a thoroughfare in Anacostia that has seen its share of violent crime and still has several boarded-up buildings.

Tradition hasn’t been ignored in the DC library program, though. The Georgetown Neighborhood Library, for example, is a stately Georgian Revival building dating from 1935 that was severely damaged in a 2007 fire. The city hired Martinez & Johnson Architects, in partnership with Hoshide Williams, to open up and expand interior reading and meeting spaces, while maintaining and restoring the building’s historic appearance.

While other localities are closing the book on their libraries, the nation’s capital is making a major investment in both libraries and architecture. Like a classic book that’s read again and again, this is one story that I hope gets repeated elsewhere.

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Protecting Arlington Cemetery from Itself

March 2nd, 2011
This historic photo of a ceremony in Arlington Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater clearly shows the original urns flanking the rostrum. Photo: Library of Congress

This historic photo of a ceremony in Arlington Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater clearly shows the original urns flanking the rostrum. Photo: Library of Congress

First, the good news: Two historic urns, Beaux Arts in style, are on their way back to Arlington National Cemetery, after receiving a last-minute reprieve from the auction block.

Now the bad news: The fact that staff allowed the urns to be removed in the first place, along with a recent campaign to replace the Tomb of the Unknowns and the mishandling of gravesites and burial records, suggests a dangerous lack of stewardship at the cemetery. It has further come to light that, despite its Civil War origins and the many notable Americans interred there, Arlington Cemetery is not even listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

According to an investigative report by the Washington Post, the 9-ft.-tall marble urns, which date to 1920 and flanked the rostrum of the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater, were mistakenly removed during a mid-1990s restoration project. How they went from the cemetery to a Maryland antiques dealer, who recently placed them up for auction, is a mystery; the records governing the removal have been lost. All we know is that the company in charge of the restoration removed the urns and had them replaced with modern replicas. It is disturbing to consider that, at any time over the past 15 years, the original urns could have been lost, auctioned or destroyed.

The Department of the Army, which oversees the cemetery, has vowed to investigate the matter and to preserve and interpret the historic urns once they return to their possession. The Army has also stated that it will seek National Register listing for the cemetery, which will ensure the comprehensive documentation of its historic elements. Along with the rest of the amphitheater, the urns were designed by Carrère & Hastings, the renowned Beaux-Arts firm responsible for the New York Public Library and many other City Beautiful-era commissions.

 

The Arlington urns were designed by the renowned Beaux-Arts firm Carrère & Hastings, which made these drawings for urns to be installed at the New York Public Library. Photo: New York Public Library

The Arlington urns were designed by the renowned Beaux-Arts firm Carrère & Hastings, which made these drawings for urns to be installed at the New York Public Library. Photo: New York Public Library

I happen to live only a couple miles from Arlington Cemetery, and I take a special interest in its preservation. But I would care about this place even if I lived anywhere else. This national cemetery is the final resting place of Civil War heroes, presidents and Supreme Court justices, as well as countless ordinary Americans who answered a call to public service. The cemetery also surrounds one of my favorite buildings anywhere – Arlington House – the Greek Revival “temple on the hill” that once belonged to George Washington Parke Custis and Robert E. Lee. (Arlington House is administered by the National Park Service and is itself included on the National Register.)

Unfortunately, the Army’s attitude toward its historic objects seems to have been “remove and replace,” rather than “repair and restore.” Recently, several concerned preservation groups (including one I’m involved in, the Arlington Heritage Alliance) came together to oppose the Army’s proposed replacement of the historic Tomb of the Unknowns with an exact replica, simply because of a few cracks in the monument. Thankfully, after a public outcry, the original 1932 Tomb is now being repaired, and plans to replace it have been shelved, at least for now.

But something is clearly still amiss at Arlington. Last year, investigators discovered more than 100 unmarked gravesites there, as well as unearthed burial urns, missing records and even one gravesite that held eight sets of remains. The problem is obviously even bigger than historic preservation. As an Arlingtonian, but even more so as an American, I hope the Department of the Army provides the oversight and resources necessary to protect and preserve this most sacred historic site.

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Haiti–Still Buried, Still Waiting

January 19th, 2011

It is unfortunate (but understandable) that the one-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake was somewhat overshadowed by the news surrounding the shootings of Rep. Giffords and others in Tucson, AZ. Otherwise, I’m sure there would have been a greater outcry that such a sad state of affairs persists in this island nation a year after a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake leveled nearly everything. Despite an international outpouring of aid, Haiti’s recovery has bogged down in conflict and confusion. Rebuilding had barely begun last fall when a cholera epidemic caused waves of new deaths.

The Ceverine School in Haiti, under construction. Photo: Darren Gill/Open Architecture Network

The Ceverine School in Haiti, under construction. Photo: Darren Gill/Open Architecture Network

Earlier this month, Oxfam International released a report, From Relief to Recovery, detailing the lack of progress in Haiti. Of the $2.1 billion pledged by nations worldwide, only 42 percent had been allocated by the end of last year, the report states. More than one million people have been displaced. Only 5 percent of the rubble from the earthquake has been cleared, and only 15 percent of the needed temporary or basic housing has been constructed.

“House building on a large scale cannot be started before the enormous amount of rubble is cleared,” the Oxfam report stated. “The government and donors must prioritize this most basic step toward helping people return home.” Time magazine was even more pointed, running an article with the headline, “It’s the Rubble, Stupid!”

A year ago in this space, I wrote about plans for rebuilding, singling out the work of Architecture for Humanity in particular. The San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, which brings together architects and planners for a variety of humanitarian crises, had developed a long-term plan for Haiti that focused on building community resource centers and schools, in addition to housing. Today, through Architecture for Humanity’s innovative Open Architecture Network (OAN), some of that work has begun.

The OAN is an online community of architects, engineers, builders and planners who offer their services on a variety of humanitarian projects. For those interested in architecture and design, just trolling through the OAN’s site is fascinating and inspiring. In the last year, several projects have focused on Haiti. Some are in the conceptual stage, some have detailed plans and renderings, some are under construction or already built.

One project nearing completion is the Ceverine School, located in the Maissade area of Artibonite, Haiti. Architecture for Humanity partnered on the project with Save the Children and Stillerstrong, an initiative led by Ben Stiller to build schools in Haiti. The design complements and adds to an existing school building, while providing a new kitchen and commodes. The design incorporates measures for hurricane proofing and seismic strengthening, as well as sustainable features such as rainwater harvesting and composting latrines.

A model for the accessible house for a displaced family of four, including a child with limited mobility. Photo: Nick Martin/Open Architecture Network

A model for the accessible house for a displaced family of four, including a child with limited mobility. Photo: Nick Martin/Open Architecture Network

I am also intrigued and heartened by some of the houses designed through the OAN. One of these is an accessible house for a family of four, including a toddler named Odeline, who has limited mobility and who lost everything in the earthquake. Like the best houses that emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Odeline house is not just a cool contemporary design seemingly transplanted to a disaster area.

Instead, its traditional design, with its sloping roofs and ample windows to maximize the island breeze, seems perfectly suited to the area. Unfortunately, the house location has moved several times because of funding issues, but the design documents are complete, and hopefully construction will begin soon.

Life goes on. A year is a long time – long enough to move on to other causes and challenges. But I fervently hope that everyone reading this will remember Haiti and consider donating again to the rebuilding effort through these wonderful organizations.

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A Streetcar Named Desire–or Desecration?

December 13th, 2010
Striking red streetcars will be put to work under Washington, DC’s, new streetcar system, scheduled to begin as early as 2012. Photo: District Department of Transportation

Striking red streetcars will be put to work under Washington, DC’s, new streetcar system, scheduled to begin as early as 2012. Photo: District Department of Transportation

Streetcars are a hot topic in Washington, DC, these days. The DC government has begun laying track for a planned 37-mile streetcar network through the city, to supplement the existing Metro bus and rail system, with a focus on under-served neighborhoods. The plan has ignited the age-old preservation-versus-progress debate, but it has also pitted preservationists against preservationists. Although the issue may not deal with architecture and building directly, it has much to do with how we view and treat our historic downtowns.

 
Like any mass transit modality, streetcars are environmentally friendly, reducing congestion and fuel consumption. Streetcars are also historic, evoking images and memories of an earlier time. In fact, streetcars wound through downtown Washington for a hundred years, beginning during the Civil War, until they were replaced by cars and buses in the latter part of the 20th century.

Historic streetcars on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. Photo: Library of Congress

Historic streetcars on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. Photo: Library of Congress

Despite their historic significance to the capital city, some preservationists (including the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the National Capital Planning Commission) have opposed the plan because the cars would be powered by overhead electrical wires. The wiring, these preservationists say, would detract from the city’s monumental aesthetic, marring the clean vistas of the city’s grand boulevards. Instead, the city should be pursuing wireless technology that relies on underground batteries and power generators.
 
City planners, however, counter that most of the areas that would be served by the streetcars would be in neighborhoods far from the monumental core. And wireless streetcar technology, they argue, is not yet universally reliable enough to be implemented city-wide. That said, depending on where it’s running, they have stated their willingness to experiment with a hybrid streetcar that relies on both wires and batteries.

In the meantime, the city hopes that the streetcar lines would spur reinvestment in downtrodden — and historic — parts of the city, invigorating moribund commercial corridors. This last idea has some preservationists — myself among them — applauding the plan. Economic development means less crime, fewer wasted and boarded-up buildings and a greater likelihood that people will live and work downtown rather than out in the sprawling suburbs. Existing streetcar cities like Portland, Seattle and Tampa have all boasted about the economic development their above-ground transit systems have spawned.

In Arlington, VA, where I live, I am also excited about a proposed streetcar line that would run the length of an historic east-west corridor called Columbia Pike that is not currently served by the D.C. Metro system. Already, this corridor has seen the exact kind of revitalization that DC officials are hoping for in the capital city, and it’s easy to imagine that the implementation of streetcars will spur even more.

For now, it’s a waiting game. Just this month, the District’s forward-thinking Transportation Director Gabe Klein announced his resignation, after Mayor-elect Vincent Gray made it clear that Klein would not be keeping his post. I am not alone in my eagerness to see how the streetcar program goes forward under the new administration. I just hope the traffic doesn’t get too bad in the meantime.

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Paper or Plastic? Palladio Versus Lego at the National Building Museum

November 15th, 2010
Palladio’s much emulated Villa Rotonda, one of several works now showcased at the National Building Museum.

Palladio’s much emulated Villa Rotonda, one of several works now showcased at the National Building Museum.

Two current exhibitions at the National Building Museum represent an interesting dichotomy in American architecture. I was there recently with my son, and it was fascinating to examine the shows side by side. The first exhibit, Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey, showcases 31 rare illustrations by the 16th-century Italian architect, along with lovely plaster models of famous classical works that demonstrate his influence in America. It is a sedate, erudite exhibit, its scale small and its objects clearly precious.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, in Lego form.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, in Lego form.

The other exhibit, LEGO® Architecture: Towering Ambition, is a fun, large-scale celebration of the famous injection-molded plastic building blocks – as well as several iconic works of Modern architecture. Adam Reed Tucker, an architect and so-called “Lego Certified Professional” (a title that only 11 people hold worldwide), has re-created 15 of the world’s most famous buildings for the exhibit, including the World Trade Center, the former Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower), Fallingwater, the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Dubai’s new Burj Khalifa. This last structure reportedly incorporated more than 450,000 Lego bricks.

Both exhibits are stunning in their own very different ways. The Palladio exhibit features books and drawings from the Palladio collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The drawings on display are so finely detailed that they elevate classical building elements to works of art, while simultaneously making them accessible and comprehensible to any layperson. Looking at them, one can readily understand how Palladian pattern books became the basis for iconic American buildings such as Mount Vernon, the White House and Monticello.

The exhibit is greatly enhanced by beautiful plaster models of Palladian buildings created and lent to the exhibit by Timothy Richards, with bas-reliefs by Ivan Simonato. To see these Palladian concepts and drawings in three dimensions was smart; it vividly shows how a simple, symmetrical five-part house plan creates absolutely perfect buildings. Thomas Jefferson, Palladio’s most famous champion, was a genius to use these forms as the symbol of American democracy, and I left the exhibit feeling inspired and reverential about both Palladio and Jefferson.

The Lego exhibit could not come across more differently. Whereas the Palladio exhibit is darker and serene, crowded with words and framed drawings and models, the Lego exhibit is all brightness and openness. Guards hovered at Palladio; at Lego, we had the space to ourselves. Part of that, of course, is the nature of the objects. I assume that the curators had to light the Palladio exhibit in such a way that protected its rare works. Lego bricks need no such consideration. Tucker’s re-creations are colorful and (I can think of no better word) neato. As I walked from building to building – most of which rose far above my head – I kept thinking, how did he do that? But I also couldn’t help but feel that the two exhibits represented the very nature of traditionalism versus modernism. One was about building context and classical precedents; the other, about standing tall and apart from your neighbors.

Modern buildings prove to be quite adaptable to the medium. Skyscrapers require much repetition, obviously, that is easily replicated in Lego bricks, and swirling, computer-aided designs are already more “plastic” and less organic than their traditional counterparts. Interestingly, the artist is re-creating the White House in Legos over the course of the exhibition as well, and I couldn’t help but feel that the Neoclassical building just didn’t work as well in this format as the modern towers. I wonder whether the ghost of Palladio would be pleased that Tucker has attempted it, or annoyed.

As the Washington Post‘s Phil Kennicott mentioned in his review of the show, Tucker builds his models out of the most basic Lego pieces, eschewing all the highly specialized, creativity-killing building kits (with licensed images from Star Wars, Disney and others) that the Lego corporation now pumps out by the millions. This is to be applauded. Like the Palladio exhibition, the Lego models celebrate the basic nature of building, brick by brick, arch by arch, column by column. Both exhibits are edifying and exciting in their own ways.

Palladio and His Legacy closes January 9, 2011. Lego: Towering Ambition runs through September 5, 2011.

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My Problem with the Ground Zero Mosque (It’s Not What You Think)

October 19th, 2010
Proposed mosque in downtown Manhattan. Photo: SOMA Architects

Proposed mosque in downtown Manhattan. Photo: SOMA Architects

Now that the debate over the Muslim community center at Ground Zero has trickled down to The View, where Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar famously marched off the set after Bill O’Reilly’s inflammatory comment that “Muslims killed us on 9/11,” every word worth saying about this (or not worth saying) may already have been said.

But I can’t stop thinking about the center – and its planned mosque, which has caused so much controversy – and wanted to add my voice to the fray. The truth is, I have a major problem with the mosque, but it has nothing to do with its right to exist.

For what it’s worth, I believe that the Park51 project, as the community center is officially known, has an inalienable right to be built. I also completely understand why so many Americans are outraged at the prospect of a mosque so close to Ground Zero. The wounds of 9/11 run deep, and it is an undeniable fact that Muslim extremists were responsible for the attacks. I personally would never have chosen this site for such a building, because of the sensitivities involved.

But I find it deeply un-American to deny freedom of speech and religion to any group, especially when they have demonstrated a legal right to build, assemble and worship on the site. I think the fact that this debate has stirred up such anti-Muslim bigotry may be even more of a reason to build the community center than not to do so. Ignorance is not bliss.

That said, I do think the mosque is disrespectful, primarily because of its in-your-face conceptual design. Sadly, the project would entail the demolition of an 1850s Italianate structure, but the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission did not see enough integrity in the original building to give it historic designation and therefore some measure of protection. Without it, the project’s developers can proceed with a dramatic modernist design by New York City-based SOMA Architects. The design, which currently features an abstract, white, webbed façade, honors neither the ancient symbols of Islamic architecture nor the historic streetscape of lower Manhattan.

I understand that this part of New York City, perhaps more than any other, needs to look forward and embrace rebirth. You wouldn’t house a new mosque in, say, a walk-up tenement house. And it’s probably smart that the Park51 folks do not overtly remind people of the domes and minarets of Kabul. But this proffered design turns something so meaningful, so controversial, so symbolic of who we are and what we’re currently struggling with as a nation into yet another whiz-bang, computer-aided, “starchitect”-style product. I find its purported edginess and modernity totally banal.

In the history of America, it has never hurt us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In the history of architecture, it has also never hurt to go back to the drawing board.

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A Fitting Memorial for Flight 93?

September 15th, 2010
The site of the crash of Flight 93 is now being molded into a new memorial, scheduled to open on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next year.

The site of the crash of Flight 93 is now being molded into a new memorial, scheduled to open on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next year.

Nine years ago, after the 9/11 attacks had left behind physical craters and even deeper emotional wounds, the nation was united in its vow to retaliate against the perpetrators and to memorialize those who were lost.

But that unity was not to last. With the ten-year anniversary of the attacks looming next year, we now find ourselves more divided than ever about what we should be doing in the aftermath of 9/11. Should we allow a mosque (or cultural center, depending on your point of view) to be built near Ground Zero? Should we keep our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should we be doing something more — or different — regarding airline security?

Even in the tranquil, rolling countryside of western Pennsylvania, where intrepid passengers thwarted the terrorists’ plans on the doomed United Flight 93, these divisions persist. I had the honor of attending the ninth-anniversary commemoration event in Shanksville, PA, last weekend, and I could witness first-hand how the land is being slowly graded and molded into a moving memorial to the Flight 93 victims (scheduled to open on September 11, 2011). But I also heard how the memorialization process may not heal wounds so much as just smooth them over or open new ones.

Designed by Los Angeles-based architect Paul Murdoch, the Flight 93 National Memorial will encompass about 2,200 acres of land (including some reclaimed and restored strip mining areas) surrounding a 400-acre, bowl-shaped area where the plane crashed and the actual memorial plaza will be constructed. A long wall that follows the flight path of the plane will be inscribed with the names of the 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93. Visitors will pass through a portal to view the crash site and an open expanse known as the “Field of Honor.” Memorial groves of maple trees will encircle the site.

Memorial ribbons on a fence around the Flight 93 crash site, now a construction zone.

Memorial ribbons on a fence around the Flight 93 crash site, now a construction zone.

Almost immediately, the initial design drew furor over its crescent shape, which some observers (including Tom Burnett, Sr., father of one of the passengers) said resembled an ancient Islamic symbol. Although the architect revised the design to make the central field more obviously circular than crescentic, critics still see a moon shape in the design and argue that the entire site is oriented toward Mecca. In a full-page ad published in a local newspaper, the critics wrote that “a more obvious tribute to the terrorists is hard to imagine.”

Some also argue that the essential story of a few brave passengers storming the cockpit has been superseded by the fuzzier, feel-good story of “forty heroes” on the plane, as if they acted as one. As one family member I talked to in Shanksville said to me, “A polite fiction is being perpetrated here.”

Personally, I don’t see it. While I deeply respect the myriad views of the family members, who have lived through the unspeakable in the past nine years, I do not believe this memorial design has a nefarious ulterior motive. But this is the blessing and the curse of Modernism. Years ago, we would have built humanistic statues of the passengers storming the cockpit door, surely with eagles aloft and solemn columns representing their fortitude, and no one would have questioned what the memorial was trying to say.

But is that the whole story? The fact that people see either Islamic crescents or healing circles in the Flight 93 design has more to do with the Modernist austerity of the site plan than anything else. It conveys information but in a way that allows us to engage with it on our own terms. In the visitor center, we’ll be able to read about those brave passengers who took on the hijackers and the others who prayed or called home. Out on the plaza, we’ll ponder what it all means.

These are powerful images: the crescent and circle, the Earth and the Moon. An arc of a life cut short or a story beginning where it ends. These shapes exist across time and nations because they are fundamental to our existence as humans, not as traditionalists or Modernists, and certainly not just as Muslims or Christians or Americans.

editorial Uncategorized

Lament for a Lustron

June 16th, 2010
All but three of the colorful Lustrons that once stood at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, shown here, have been destroyed. Will the MoMA Lustron meet the same fate?

All but three of the colorful Lustrons that once stood at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, shown here, have been destroyed. Will the MoMA Lustron meet the same fate?

Two years ago, I watched as a small, gable-roofed house began a long, unusual journey from its banal suburban lot in Virginia to one of the most impressive destinations in the world — the Museum of Modern Art. Four months after its glittering New York City debut, after thousands of visitors walked through it and marveled at it, that house returned to a Virginia warehouse in pieces. And there it remains today, its future uncertain.

A Modern barn-raising: In June 2008, a group of volunteers gathered in the Museum of Modern Art to erect a rare Lustron house, originally from Arlington, VA, for its acclaimed exhibit on prefabricated housing.

A Modern barn-raising: In June 2008, a group of volunteers gathered in the Museum of Modern Art to erect a rare Lustron house, originally from Arlington, VA, for its acclaimed exhibit on prefabricated housing.

Despite its modest size and traditional profile, that house was no ordinary house, but an all-steel Lustron. Built between 1948 and 1950 in a Columbus, OH, factory, Lustrons are prefabricated, porcelain-enameled steel houses that were designed to meet the postwar housing demand and revolutionize how houses were sold and built. Offered in an array of colors, the homes were advertised as affordable and low-maintenance and came in two- and three-bedroom models. Lustrons represent the perfect marriage of traditional design and mid-century Modernism — a technologically advanced house wrapped in a comforting, suburban form. It’s all metal for sure, but you’ll find no flat roofs or cantilevered balconies here.

The completed Lustron inside MoMA, before throngs of visitors walked through it during the four-month exhibit.

The completed Lustron inside MoMA, before throngs of visitors walked through it during the four-month exhibit.

With a multi-million dollar subsidy from the federal government, Lustrons became approved homes under the guaranteed mortgage program for returning veterans. More than 2,500 were built nationwide, and thousands more had been ordered when the company went bankrupt. Because of their novel materials, highly ordered building structure and relative rarity, Lustrons are increasingly recognized as historic. Several states — including Alabama, Georgia and Kansas — have successfully listed Lustrons on the National Register of Historic Places.

Virginia, for its part, boasted two major collections of Lustron houses — 60 were built on the Marine Corps base at Quantico and 11 were built here in Arlington County, where I live. Yet in recent years, these houses have nearly all disappeared. In a high-profile case, all but three of Quantico’s Lustrons were destroyed in the last few years to make way for new housing (two were kept on base almost as souvenirs and one was dismantled and hauled away by an enterprising architect). In Arlington, only four Lustrons remain standing, so when the opportunity arose to save one and eventually bring it to MoMA, I jumped at the chance to participate.

This particular Lustron was donated to the county by a generous owner who hoped to see it preserved and reused, with support from county preservation staff and the Arlington Heritage Alliance (a preservation group on whose board I serve). Once the deal was struck, the house was documented and dismantled and placed in storage. (Based on this effort, my colleague Cynthia Liccese-Torres and I co-authored The Illustrious Lustron: A Guide for the Disassembly and Preservation of America’s Modern Metal Marvel).

Then MoMA came calling, looking for a Lustron to reassemble for its acclaimed 2008 exhibit Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. I worked alongside a group of intrepid volunteers to rebuild the house in the museum for the exhibit, alongside works by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jean Prouvé and others. As I stood in MoMA on the exhibit’s crowded opening night, I imagined its triumphant return to Arlington, where it was to be rebuilt for some new community use — a visitor center, art gallery, performing arts space or something else.

It didn’t work out that way. Ever since the exhibit ended and the economy tanked, the MoMA Lustron has gathered dust in that warehouse, forlorn and forgotten.

But my hopes for its future remain. Lustrons represent a major attempt in our collective history to marry traditional housing design with the wonders of the modern age. They were models of Yankee ingenuity. Now we need more of that ingenuity — not to mention funding and support — to save the MoMA Lustron. I welcome your ideas.

editorial Uncategorized