Where I’ve Been and What I’ve Been Doing

May 15th, 2014

BBVA Compass Stadium (designed by Populous), H0uston (as seen from MFAH design curator Cindi Strauss’s vintage red Mercedes).

It’s been so long since I’ve posted anything on this blog that I’ve forgotten how Word Press works.  (And Flickr is a complete mystery to me.) Where have I been?  Mostly right here, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  (Although we’re relocating to Downtown Brooklyn in the very near future. Too many hipsters!)  I’ve also been on Twitter a lot.  (See @KarrieUrbanist.)

I have been traveling a little:  Houston (where I gave a talk on manmade nature at the MFAH),  Anguilla (where I did as little as possible), Las Vegas (where I caught up with the home building industry),  Phoenix (where I hung out with women architects and drank margaritas that were way too sweet ), and some places I’ve probably forgotten.

A couple of months ago, I wrote my last “America” column for Metropolis Magazine.  It was a good one (see link below), about Faust, MoMA and the Folk Art Museum.  Shortly thereafter, Metropolis decided not to renew my contract.  They were offended that I was also writing for Architect Magazine.  So, I’m now a contributing editor at Architect, and you will frequently find my byline in the  magazine and on the website.

I continue to write occasionally for Travel + Leisure and other publications.   I’m quietly working on a startup with a couple of members of the original Dwell creative team.  More on that later.  And I’m cooking up other interesting projects on the subject of manmade nature.  (For an explanation, see my “Unnatural Nature” column from the the February Metropolis, link below).  Also, I continue to teach at SVA’s newly renamed Department of Design Research.

Here are a few recent pieces:

10 Ideas from Rebuild by Design, Architect

Fashion Statement, Architect

A Tall Order, Architect

Italian Futurism, Architect

Q&A with Witold Rybczynski, New York Times

Faust on W. 53rd St., Metropolis

Unnatural Nature, Metropolis

A Tale of Two Agendas, Metropolis


September 11th, 2013

1 WTC from Sixth Avenue in Chelsea on a June evening. (Photo by Karrie Jacobs.)

Yesterday I was mostly thinking about the primary elections here in NYC.  And not about the twelfth anniversary of 9-11.  Then, last night, we emerged from a party at Pravda, thrown by Pentagram, in honor of a book of drawings (of Joe McCarthy!)  by Arline Simon (Emily Oberman’s mom!), and saw the Tribute in Light framing a fat crescent moon.  I was reminded of how smart, simple, and moving the Tribute in Light is.

Now, more than a decade later, the building that was once called the Freedom Tower is finally nearing completion.  Mostly I look at it from Sixth Avenue, in Chelsea, when I’m walking from SVA DCrit on W. 21st Street to the L train.  It occupies the spot in the sky that used to be filled by the Twin Towers.

Admittedly, I didn’t warm up to the old WTC until the mid-1990s.  I didn’t see the beauty in it until I started running on the Brooklyn Bridge and noticed it reflecting the morning light.  And maybe, a couple of decades from now, I’ll start to see the beauty in the new 1 WTC. So far, it doesn’t strike me as smart, simple, or moving.   Mostly, it looks like what it is:  the product of too many compromises and too many bad decisions.  Most recently, the building’s co-developer, the Durst Organization,  opted  to save $20 million by eliminating the decorative “radome” from the tower’s spire.  According to Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune, eliminating this element might make the WTC tower’s official height come in at 1376 feet instead of Libeskind’s emblematic 1776 feet.   In other words, this symbol of our determination to rebuild bigger and better may technically be shorter than the Willis (nee Sears) Tower, not to mention myriad less consequential skyscrapers across Asia.

P.S. While we’re on the subject, check out Ann Rhoney’s moody photo of the old WTC.  And Pentagram Papers 41.

P.P.S.  Here’s my column on Newark’s Passaic River Waterfront from Metropolis.  And my profile of Philly architecture firm ISA (the 100K house) from Architect.

The Metropolis Project, Part III

June 27th, 2013

Urbanity, Texas style, 2011.  (Photo by Karrie Jacobs)

More of my favorite “America” columns from the Metropolis website.  (If you want to know why I’m compiling these columns now, go to The Metropolis Project, Part I).

Madison Square Station, December 2007

In which I realize that the problems with the Moynihan Station plan have much more to do with money and politics than architecture.

The Power of Inadvertent Design, February 2004

(Not an America column, but part of a series I wrote about the plans for the WTC site.)  In which I ponder the inadequacy of symbolism.

The DUMBO Principle, May 2013

In which I determine that something good might come out of the Walentas-SHoP approach to the Domino site in Williamsburg.

The Two-Block Problem, November 2010

In which I notice that two Manhattan blocks can be a very long distance or a very short distance depending on circumstance.

Say What?, January 2012

In which I stumble on evidence that the word “urban” has been rehabilitated.

Fast Train Coming (Slowly), September 2008

In which I try to figure out why the Feds are funding a mag lev train from Disneyland to Las Vegas instead of a high speed rail system.

The Incrementalists, January 2011

In which I try to figure out why we’re widening a concourse or two instead of building Moynihan Station.

The Metropolis Project, Part II

June 21st, 2013

A “stand-alone loft” as discussed in “I Am the Uncool Hunter.” Frederick, CO, 2003.  (Photo by Karrie Jacobs)

Here are more of my favorite Metropolis “America” columns in a random order chosen by the magazine website’s search function.  (See Part I, below, for an explanation of why these links are suddenly necessary.  Hint: it’s not nostalgia.)

Like Urban Renewal, Only Backward, April 2008

In which I notice that America’s city’s are in a better position than the federal government to  implement progressive policy. (An idea that’s just lately gained traction.)

The Joy of Stumbling, February 2009

In which I write about my former favorite social networking site’s growing pains.

Dutch Treat, April 2009

In which I mark the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s ocean voyage.

Ground Zero’s Saving Grace, May 2006

In which I discover the surprising goodness of 7WTC

Urban Interlopers, March 2008

In which I realize that, in Santa Fe,  density is controversial

The Ad at the End of the Tunnel, July 2006

In which an ad I see on the PATH train sends me on a conceptual treasure hunt

Revenge of the Small, December 2006

In which I begin to notice that houses are shrinking

I Am the Uncool Hunter, May 2004

In which I encounter the “stand-alone” loft in a Colorado subdivision

Without Redundancy, October 2007

In which I probe the cultural reasons behind structural failure

Sagatopia, September 2007

In which I search in vain for “modesty” on Long Island’s East End

Grand Vision, July 2007

In which I applaud (sort of) Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030

The Thrill is Gone, February 2008

In which I question  the necessity of Times Square

The Metropolis Project, Part I

June 20th, 2013

A Chilean glacier as seen from the deck of the Infinity, 2005.  (Photo by Karrie Jacobs)

Recently, Metropolis Magazine, for which I’ve been writing a column called “America” for about nine years,  redesigned its website.  And, for reasons unknown, it was done in a way that renders useless all the links to all the stories that were on the site prior to the redesign.  Everything on the site has a new link.  Google, I think, has begun to catch up.  But all  links from elsewhere on the web to content that was posted before  mid-May will yield an error message.  (Including the links on the “some things I’ve written” page on this very site.)  Clearly, this is not just my problem.  It affects everyone who has written for the magazine since it launched its website.  I’m guessing  it might affect overall traffic to the site.  (Unless landing on an error message counts as a page hit.)

Admittedly, the in-house search engine is better than it used to be.  I can now search my name, in quotes, and not get every single story the magazine has ever run about Jane Jacobs.  That’s an improvement.  But, so far, I can only pull up my columns by “relevancy” as determined by the search engine. (The order-search-results-by-date function doesn’t seem to be working.)  So I’m busily assembling my own chronological archive of columns and, in the process, will put up links to some of my favorites.  Here’s the first batch:

The Cruise Ship Diaries, May 2005

In which D. and I set sail on the Infinity.

Boomtown Blues, December 2008

In which I consider Dubai and Shanghai’s Pudong as urban places

Jane Jacobs Revisited, August 2006

In which I finally read The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Toothpaste Aisle, February 2005

In which I shop for a tube of Colgate.

Pleasantville, November 2004

In which I investigate the nature of “reality.”

A President and His Dog, August 2004

In which I spend quality time with George W. Bush’s website

Handy Containers, April 2011

In which I explore the philosophy of Boxism

Warhol’s Time Machine, November 2005

In which I visit Pittsburgh.

The Revolution that Never Quite Was, October 2006

In which I hang out with the renegade architects of Prickly Mountain, Vermont

What Comes After Modernism?, December 2004

In which I pose the question.

The Fabrication Fair

May 22nd, 2013

What I saw at Javits: A CNC router carving small wooden cars (top), 3D printers spewing tcatchkes (center), and a built-in countertop espresso gizmo emitting cappuccino through a faucet.

Another year, another furniture fair.  It was the 25th anniversary edition of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Javits Center in New York.  Every year I go and attempt to assess the state of the world by looking at sofas, chaises, coffee tables and wall coverings.  The past couple of years were a little dull; the world, I decided, was in a holding pattern. (Here’s 2012 and 2009) This year, however, I detected an exuberance that I hadn’t sensed in quite sometime.

The funny thing is that the upswing in mood had very little to do with the actual furniture on display.  Yes, there were some cool pieces including new turntable consoles for the vinyl revival by Symbol, reissued Josef Albers nesting tables from AMEICO, and some great looking Konstantin Grcic chairs by Emeco.  But the big excitement had to do with fabrication.   It’s one thing for digital fabrication to be on display at the reliably outre New Museum, and another for it to turn up much closer to the mainstream at Javits; clearly the maker movement has arrived.

Most impressive was a cluster of several machines dead center on the exhibition floor, laser cutting and folding steel into Tom Dixon designed Punch BallsTrumpf, a German manufacturer of high tech industrial equipment was in charge, assisted by Red Hook based metal shop Kanmetal.  More than the tabletop sized 3D printers that were seemingly everywhere, spewing out fragile looking tchatchkes, Dixon’s metalworks struck me as a  large,  loud statement about the  very nowish merger of design and manufacturing.

Then there was the huge CNC router set up in the middle of Javits North, an underpopulated annex, carving blocks of wood into smallish cars.  I was too tired by the time  I got there to figure who was fabricating what and why,  but it was also a fairly dramatic operation.

And there was my favorite thing, the very indulgent built-in espresso system called TopBrewer.  The machine (including a grinder) was built in to a counter, controlled by an iPad app, and delivered hot cappuccino out of  a faucet.   I’ve made endless  jokes about my desire for an app that makes espresso.  The set-up I saw at Javits comes very close to my fantasy and nicely represents a whole other spin on the concept digital fabrication.

Against Homogeneity

April 11th, 2013

The American Folk Art Museum, October 2007.

Above is my one not-very-successful attempt to photograph the American Folk Art Museum on 53rd St., designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.  It opened to great acclaim in 2001 and was sold by its financially distressed owner in 2011 to the big museum next door.  Which, of course, was the beginning of the end.

I took the picture in 2007, while writing a mini-guide to my favorite buildings in midtown.  I divided the buildings into the “fat” ones — Grand Central and the New York Public Library at Fifth Ave. and 42nd St. — and the “thin” ones: Christian de Portzamparc’s  LVMH tower on 57th St., Raimund Abraham’s Austrian Cultural Forum on 52nd St. and the American Folk Art Museum.  To me, the thin buildings are especially appealing because, unlike the mammoth skyscrapers that are Manhattan’s signature  feature, they are significant works of architecture built at townhouse scale.  These skinny midblock masterpieces play a vital role in keeping midtown visually exciting.  They make for a variegated streetscape and act as barriers against encroaching homogeneity.

Shortly after the American Folk Art Museum sold its building to MoMA, I had a conversation with Tsien.   She reasoned that, since MoMA collects and displays architecture, it should simply add the Folk Art to its collection, preserve it and keep it, perhaps using it as an exhibition or event space.

I thought it was a lovely idea, but I didn’t believe it was going to happen.  Indeed,  MoMA has just announced its intention to demolish the smaller museum before the end of the year.  I’m not surprised.  The kind of building that Williams and Tsien designed, quirky and modest, with a facade that appears hand-crafted and circuitous exhibition space that transformed each visit into a treasure hunt, is not MoMA’s kind of building.  It doesn’t feature vast white-walled galleries or a cavernous atrium.  It doesn’t telegraph self importance or celebrate a doctrinaire brand of Modernism.  It is decidedly unglassy.

The American Folk Art Museum is antithetical to MoMA overdeveloped self-image and stands in the way of its seemingly endless expansion plans.  That’s why it’s going down.  And that’s exactly why MoMA should be wise enough to keep it. The difference between Williams and Tsien’s approach to Modernism and MoMA’s is the kind of aesthetic divide that a truly great museum would be big enough to engage and creative enough to exploit.  That MoMA will undermine New York City’s zoning in the name of important architecture to build it’s cherished Jean Nouvel tower, but can’t find a way to preserve a far less remunerative work of important architecture, speaks volumes about the museum’s priorities.

Bill Moggridge, California, and the Passage of Time

February 5th, 2013

The Edible Schoolyard, Berkeley, CA 2007 (photo by Karrie Jacobs)

At last week’s memorial for Bill Moggridge, who died in September, I began thinking about the places where his  life intersected with mine, moments I’d almost forgotten.    Bill was an industrial designer, famous for designing the first portable computer back in 1979.  He was one of the founders of the well-known Palo Alto design firm IDEO, where he did his best to inject humanity into the concept of human factors.  in the last years of his life lived in New York and served as the director of the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

As I listened to those on stage at Symphony Space  — including Bill’s longtime business partner at IDEO, David Kelley, design curator Ellen Lupton, and Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton – I was thinking about how oddly pivotal Bill was in my own  life.  I met him in 1989, when I was invited to speak at the Stanford Design Conference.  Bill was, quite literally, the welcoming committee.   On the morning of my talk — the first of the conference — he arrived at my hotel on foot and walked me to the Stanford campus.  During my talk, he sat in the front row and laughed conspicuously at all my jokes.  I don’t know whether that was his job as host, or whether he was genuinely amused.  Either way, he put me at ease and made me feel tremendously welcome.  By the end of the conference, I decided that Bill, although he was born in England, represented something enviably Californian: the Happy Intellectual.

Much later , in spring of 2002, I drove down to the house Bill and his wife Karin had built into a west-facing ridge, with an unbroken view of the Pacific, somewhere south of San Francisco. By then, I was doing my best to be a Californian.  The Moggridges were having a party and had  invited me.  But I was also there to see the house.  I was the editor of Dwell back then and the house was, no surprise,  perfect for the magazine.   It was also a delightful party.  Smart, interesting people.  Good food and drink.   I drove home in my VW convertible, enjoying a profound sense of well-being, top down and  seat heater on.  I was cruising along the top of the ridge and, just below the level of the road, hung a layer of fog that had rolled in from the ocean.  I drove north,  listening to music, and feeling as though I was piloting an airplane above the clouds.

I constructed an issue around Bill and Karin’s house.  Their architects (Baum Thornley) had taken great care to respect the geology of the surrounding ridge.  The proposal included not just renderings, but little test tubes of soil samples.  The issue would be about houses and the landscape.  It would also feature a home on Vancouver Island that incorporated the property’s boulders as part of the interior, and a house in Montana that the architect believed would somehow reduce sprawl.   Unaccountably, the issue’s theme — the landscape — triggered an in-house conflict at Dwell.  It was the last in a series of disputes, the one that convinced me that my own California experience  was just about over. Clearly  I wasn’t cut out for the Happy Intellectual lifestyle.

I’m pretty sure I never told Bill about how his house — indirectly, unpredictably — triggered my departure from Dwell. In fact, I  hadn’t really thought about that connection until I was listening to the Memorial panelists reminisce.  The Memorial also made me recall one other Bill moment that I’d completely forgotten:  Sometime in the early 2000s, in the driveway of Michael and Katherine McCoy’s house in Buena Vista, Colorado, Bill was one of a trio of America’s leading industrial designers who helped reattach a rear-view mirror that I’d snapped off my rented Mustang.  As I recall, they did a splendid job, nearly invisible, using ingenuity and electricians’ tape.  I’d like to think that the all-star customization job added to the car’s value, but I neglected to mention it to the rental agency in question.

Anyway, I just noticed that there’s a website that’s collecting Bill Moggridge stories. Do take a look: http://www.billmoggridge.com/celebration/

Goodbye Ada Louise

January 8th, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable, 1974, photographed for Life by Alfred Eisenstaedt. (Photo poached from the Dwell website.)

I was sad to read in this morning’s New York Times that the newspaper’s first — and best — architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable,  has died at age 91.

My favorite article of hers, “The Park Avenue School of Architecture,”  was published in the Sunday Times Magazine on December 15, 1957.  She wasn’t yet on staff,  but was working at the Museum of Modern Art and writing an invaluable little book, Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City, jointly published in 1961 by MoMA and the Municipal Art Society.

In the article, she explains to a dubious public the value of the glassy new office towers that had recently  sprouted along Park Avenue, like Lever House and the Seagram Building.  She was writing when those buildings were still viewed as experiments or as outrages.   I like to have my SVA design criticism students read the article and then follow Huxtable’s walking tour of Park Avenue.  The goal is to get them to see the blocks between 42nd and 59th Streets, through her eyes,  as if it were 1961 and glass curtain-walled office buildings were  still controversial.  The idea is to get them to see a stretch that now seems entirely predictable as it was when it was  borderline unthinkable.

In 1957, Huxtable wrote:

“For we no longer just bury the past; we destroy it to make room for the future.  Monuments and memories are demolished with the same cheerful, irreverent violence.  As the old buildings disappear radical new ones rise immediately in their place and the pattern of progress becomes clear: business palaces replace private palaces; soap aristocracy supplants social aristocracy; sleek towers of steel-framed blue, green, or gray tinted glass give the avenue a glamorous and glittering new look.”

Well, social aristocracy has made a comeback since she wrote those words with landmark office towers transformed into luxury condos, but Huxtable’s lucid approach to architecture criticism never changed and she  never stopped writing. In recent years, she’s been the architecture critic of the Wall Street Journal. Check out what she had to say about Libeskind’s winning plan for Ground Zero or her recent take on the New York Public Library’s planned overhaul.

Oh, and you can get the 1957 Park Avenue article from the Times website (as a PDF).  Dig it out of the archives and go for a walk.  Honor the memory of Ada Louise Huxtable by spending a few hours seeing a familiar part of the city through her wonderfully fresh eyes.

Middle-Aged Wasteland

November 15th, 2012

Special effects from the Who concert (top) made more special by the limitations of my iPhone camera. And (directly above) the non-iconic backside of the Barclays Center just before opening day.

It gets worse.  Not only did I write kind words about Barclays Center, the rust-coated basketball arena that is the first building to go up in the much despised Atlantic Yards complex, but I actually went to a show there.  Last night.

I’d never seen the Who in concert.  If I was ever going to see them, I should have done so 40 years ago, when I cared, when Baba O’Riley was the best song ever.  But I never did.  A couple of years ago, Ed and I watched the band’s halftime performance during the Superbowl and it was so sad.  An elderly Pete Townshend still windmilling.  An over-the-hill Roger Daltrey still preening.  Both of them singing  anthems of  youth without conviction, no longer able to hit the high notes.

But someone bought Ed tickets to see the Who. So we went.  They were performing the album Quadrophenia (1973) in its entirety, an album I’d always liked.  And the show was better than expected largely because of the visuals.  I realize that I haven’t been to an arena rock concert in decades and that the visual component has really taken off.  The Who used four screens, one a large backdrop and the others overhead and shaped like cameos, to show historical footage of England in the post-war years, of Mods and Rockers, of the ocean, and of the Who themselves much, much younger (and in the cases of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, still alive). They had the good sense to use documentary footage to transform a rock opera about youth culture being sung by men in their late sixties (for an audience that was equally gray) into a meditation on the passage of time.

The other thing is that Barclays Center turns out to be a decent place to see a show.   They had crossing guards out front helping concert goers to navigate Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.  The arena staff was competent and welcoming.  The brisket sandwich I had from the arena branch of Fatty’Cue was tasty.  And it was an easy subway ride home.

Which brings me to my latest Metropolis column, my review of the arena’s architecture in the context of the overall Atlantic Yards project.  The thrust of the article was that, while the arena is much better than anticipated, the project as a whole is still utterly misbegotten.  My suggestion was that SHoP, the  architects responsible for the  look of Barclays apply their talents to redoing the project’s masterplan.  Seems like a logical move to me.  But I couldn’t get any response from SHoP to my questions about whether this was in the realm of possibility.  However, a Nets website that picked up on my review of the arena said this:

Jacobs asks if SHoP can get its hands on the master plan for the rest of the site. In fact, it has and is working on re-shaping the original master plan laid out by Frank Gehry.

To which I can only respond: Hmmmm.