The idea of meta-regions is all the rage when it comes to national transportation policy. The logic of maps like this are helping frame high-speed rail policy and priorities, for example.  But the regions depicted in this map also represent radically different taste regimes when it comes to design culture.  “Cascadia,” the region defined by Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, is the home of the contemporary language of Patkau, Miller Hull, and other proponents of a woodsie and geometrically inflected modernism that has more than a whiff of Alvar Aalto.  The green region centered on Atlanta and Charlotte, on the other hand, is ground zero of suburbo-preppy New Urbanism.  Gross generalizations for sure, but regional cultural affinities do matter and are greatly clarified by this map.


Between Banality and Minimalism

A ghastly (say with a British accent) affordable housing project was featured in the recent issue of Metropolis Magazine. Designed by Sir Richard Rogers’s newly reconstituted firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners – shaped no doubt by consultants who specialize in the succession plans of famous-name firms – the project looks like it was designed in about 45 minutes. I like to say that there is a fine line between minimalism and banality. Unfortunately (for the inhabitants) this project fell far short of the mark.

Even Rick Poyner, the writer of the fawning article, stumbles over the social and aesthetic incongruities of the Lego-land-like project:

“My only criticism, now that the houses are occupied, is that their futuristic style makes conventional timber fences, gates, and garden sheds look incongruous and unsightly. (Harbour notes that even the cars parked outside seem old-fashioned.) These backyard necessities require a better integrated design language, but that is more restrictive than even the most aesthetically aware owner is likely to accept. A few residents have even put up net curtains. Ultra-modernity is a demanding visual code to live up to.”

Projects like this fuel the Congress for New Urbanism’s authority when it comes to community development.



The Peach Walls of Paris


Some might remember that we once had a peach tree in our rear garden in South Boston.  Against all odds, it bore bushels and bushels of fruit in late August; so much that we couldn’t keep up with the ripe peaches that dropped from the tree.  The consequence was a small lawn slippery with rotting peaches and a chorus of fruit flies that would taunt me from the rim of my wine glass.  Our landscape architect-friends told us that the tree did so well because the micro-climate was perfect: our 30’ x 50’  garden faced south and the north of side of walled enclosure was defined by a three-story tall light-colored wall, the side of a triple-decker.   

Recently Scheri Fultineer, a lecturer in the landscape architecture department at the Harvard GSD, gave a talk on urban agriculture and showed this image of the peach walls in Paris.  According to Scheri, they are still in limited use and being studied for applications in Montreal and elsewhere.  The size and proportion of the cell-like spaces in this image proves that our property is the perfect site for a productive garden.

When the peach tree started to decline, we decided to remove it as part of a comprehensive redesign.  I miss the tree – but not the fruit flies.



Underground Urbanism: Toronto-Style

As you all know, I’m completely obsessed with the subterranean.  A little bit of side research uncovered another fan of the underground: Landscape Architect Pierre Belanger, Assoc. Professor at the GSD (except for him it’s called Underground Landscape—we’re all spin masters, in the end).  Although the images are fuzzy in the pdf I found, it looks like he’s trying out some interesting graphic techniques to conflate and compare the surface context with the subterranean.  Might be worth a LunchMEAT to get a clearer look at the research.



Walkway over the Hudson

About 80 miles north of New York City, the Poughkeepsie Highland Railroad Bridge was re-opened earlier this year as a pedestrian walkway over the Hudson River. Originally built in 1889 (the longest bridge in the world at the time), it had been abandoned since a fire damaged the tracks in 1974. The bridge spans 1.25 miles and the walking deck is 212 feet above the river. Following the fire, the bridge was left standing only due to the inhibitive cost of demolition. The $38 million rehabilitation effort was funded by both public and private investment, and the walkway was able to open on schedule to correspond with the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river.



Exploded Axon


"Cosmic Thing," Damian Ortega, 2002

The highlight of the Damian Ortega exhibition at the ICA (Boston, through January 18, 2010) is a dissembled Volkswagen Beetle suspended on thin wires from the ceiling.  Ortega’s installation is a walk-through example of the “figure-figure” logic of both modernist industrial design and the classical language of architecture.  In both design traditions, the singular figure (a temple, a gun) is conceived by “putting together” discrete components (a column capital, a trigger) that have their own figurative logic based on tradition, visual logic, functional demands, and fabrication limitations.  Contrast this with the smoothed over and/or fused together design tradition of Mediterranean architecture (Alvaro Siza, Greek villages) and contemporary twisted-taffy architecture generated by parametric modeling software.


Massey College

Massey College, a graduate-level residential college at the University of Toronto, was one of several interesting places I was taken while attending an urban design workshop in Toronto last week. The College, designed by Ron Thom in 1963 as a cloistered enclave that turns its elegantly composed back to the city, has a humanizing scale and gemütlich character that is unique within the context of much more monumental work being done in North America during the same period. The architecture is equal parts Frank Lloyd Wright, Eliel Saarineen (via Cranbrook), and Harry Potter. 

The dining hall (shown below) is the culmination of a spatial sequence that begins at the elaborate gate to the college, continues past sunken pools in the courtyard, into a well-proportioned entrance hall with glimpses into a sitting area, and then up broad stairs in a double height space that is reminiscent of Dudok’s Town Hall in Hilversum, the Netherlands (1924-31).

Shim Sutcliffe did a series of elegant interventions in the late 1990s, including the Carlo Scarpa-inspired firewood storage area shown below. Brigitte Shim, host for a lunch for the out-of-town workshop participants, is a fellow at the College.