Pinecone Garden

While surfing, I ran across this totally awesome park/installation by West 8.  An excerpt from their project description:

One of the inner gardens of the Carthusian Monastery of Padula, Italy, has been strewn with thousands of pinecones collected by children in the neighbourhood. In combination with the existing cedar trees, they create an aroma of forest and dried wood. The excess of pinecones is overwhelming and the crackling of drying seeds in the sun brings a consciousness of the evolution process. During the night the pinecones glow from underneath with a red light.



Retroactive Inevitability

I went to the MFA the other night to hear Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar present his public installation work.  Please visit his excellent website:

His work reminded me of the Utile standard of “retroactive inevitability.”  It’s a principle for judging proposals based on the idea that if they are right, they will appear as though they were always meant to be, and in some cases, already exist in our imaginations.  Jaar’s public installations, which are Christo-like (but smaller) in their community engagement, begin as slightly absurd, almost heavy-handed, proposals.  Through a commitment to the radical simplicity of the original idea, and their elegant execution, the local non-believers are typically converted, and once engaged with the built installation, begin to feel as though “of course” it was meant to be. 

I’ve attached images of two projects.  One is a museum built in a Swedish town famous for its paper mill, but without a museum. Jaar convinces the town to let him build the first “museum” out of paper (duh!).  As soon as there is a grand opening, with a large gathering of happy small-town Swedes, music and flags, he sets the structure on fire in a grand, gorgeous, ashes-to-ashes moment of performance art.  In the end, the bonfire has the intended consequence of the townsfolk lamenting the loss of the museum they never thought they needed.

The second project consists of an enormous stack of 1 million Finnish passports (real, but unassigned).  These represent all the foreign born citizens that would have been naturalized as Finnish citizens if their immigration policy were as “open” as their Scandinavian and European neighbors.  As a critique of Finnish xenophobia, it’s pretty clunky.  That said, the physical manifestation of the idea, neatly piled behind high-security glass like a stack of gold bars in the basement of the Federal Reserve, is quite compelling.  After all the weird ideas, the awkward requests for permission from the authorities, meetings with the museum and the organization that publishes the documents, etc., this unprecedented and somber assemblage of passports seems, strangely, like it has always been there, or simply meant to be.




Five Minute Walk

During two one-week sessions in Toronto, I worked with 7-10 University of Toronto students on an urban design proposal adjacent to the McCowan station – on one of Toronto’s commuter train lines.  Ivan Rupnik, a colleague at Northeastern University, joined me to direct the second session.

McCowan station is one of two stations that serve Scarsborough Town Centre, a 1970s-era suburban development that includes a regional shopping mall and a collection of retro-mirrored office buildings.  Currently, the City of Toronto is considering the addition of streets to the suburban sprawl, in an attempt to create a more traditional block pattern.  A trip to the site confirmed that the City’s strategy was more ideological than practical.  In some places, the strategies of New Urbanism simply won’t work, no matter how deep the faith.

Our proposal, cribbed from West 8’s landscape strategy at Schiphol, started with the replacement of surface parking with parking drums, freeing up enough of the ground plane that the addition of trees on a 10 meter grid would generate a dense new urban context – and at a much lower cost than importing traditional urbanism to the site.  The trees were proposed as a circular forest, with the radius defined by the approximate distance of a five-minute walk from the station.  A pedestrian boardwalk moves through the trees at the height of the elevated station, while service vehicles access the buildings on gravel driveways on the forest floor.  The boardwalk and parking drums create a compelling context for mid-rise residential and office development.


Fashion Skates


The most enjoyable side-sport of the Winter Olympics has to be ranking the overall frightfulness of the figure skating costumes.  My personal favorite in Vancouver: the Ukrainian pair of Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov in tinfoil blue (down to the skates).  Time has posted a blog on the 10 worst costumes ever, headed by the Russians—in “aboriginal” attire—at this year’s European Championships.  Awesome.



Close to Home


Zaragoza Guerra, a color expert and stylist from East Boston, sent me this hilarious link to Unhappy Hipster. This image cracks me up because it reminds me of the constant battle we have in our backyard. The battle stems from separating the decomposed granite pebbles (a la Bryant Park) from the grass. Our kids have grown to appreciate the rigor, and after a backyard game of whiffle ball they automatically get on their knees and check for any stray pebbles in the grass. We have raised them well!

For more hilarious images (not to mention good design) click this link:





Truck Graphics


As the visual influence of branding consultants infiltrates every aspect of North American culture, from international retailers to entrepreneurial local restaurant operators, vernacular graphic design has disappeared from the city.  This becomes evident when looking at photographs of cities from as recently as the 1970s, when the art of the hand-painted sign – designed by the sign company – graced at least half the storefronts. Trucks might be the last bastion of this visual language – big blocky letterforms, short names, and a strong color background seem to make the most impact.

Perhaps others have commented on this last gasp of quotidian graphic design.  If a book hasn’t been done to capture this language – perhaps we should produce it – before these moving signs are also subject to a more self-conscious identify strategy.


I got 99 problems…


But a restaurant ain’t one. 

For a restaurant chain that has become synonymous with the suburbs, the 99 Restaurant actually got its start as a pioneer of downtown casual dining at the restaurant’s once-eponymous address: 99 State Street. I recently walked over a few blocks to investigate the chain’s original home. While the “99” is gone, there’s a “103” in its place, which is presently occupied by a 7-11.  (For you numerologists out there: 7+11 = 18 and 9+9 = 18)

Full disclosure: I’ve never actually been to the 99 restaurant, but that hasn’t stopped me from developing a fascination from afar. This fascination is largely attributable to the fact that the chain location closest to Boston is situated on what I’ve oftentimes thought is one of the most under-developed parcels in the city. That’s right…Charlestown’s very own Bunker Hill Mall. The site has it all. Gateway parcel!  Infrastructural bonanza! Close to a community college! Adjacent to a confined residential area! Along with the 99, the commercial retail roster reads like a Who’s Who of AAA tenants: Dunkin Donuts, Radio Shack, Curves, Friendly’s, CVS, Citizens Bank, Papa Gino’s, Quality Dental, USPS, and a Foodmaster (ok, maybe not this last one). Is the current configuration really the highest and best use?

– Corey Z (and my brother’s name really is Jay, but not that Jay)





There is a blog on the Times site that features Nicholas de Monchaux, Assistant Prof at UC Berkeley (former Yale undergrad studio mate), who has developed, with his students, a program called Local Code. The Big Idea: use GIS information to identify the strange, leftover patches of pavement that belong to no one, are unmaintained, and whose density seems to prefigure other deeper health and societal issues.  Near concentrations of these lots there is more crime, higher incidences of asthma, stormwater fiascos. So why not devise a strategy to fix them? It is worth watching the video alone; many clever graphic techniques.

The most fruitful post-article google search was on the work of artist Gordon Matta-Clark from the 1970’s. Fake Estates: Reality Properties was one major precedent de Moncheaux cited that suggested looking for, and acting upon, these “gutterspaces”. Matta-Clark searched out and acquired 15 of these land scraps from the City of New York (at $25 a piece), with the prospect of creating a network of urban artscapes upon them. The graphics above show the official documentation on one of the spaces and an incredible graph of the dimensional weirdness of these leftover sites. Genius. Matta-Clark died at 35, before completing the project.