George Condo and Philip Taaffe

Philip Taaffe, Cape Zephyr, 2007

George Condo, Ballerina for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West), 2010

George Condo, the artist commissioned to paint Kim Kardashian’s Birkin bag, has always had a knack for teaming up with culturally relevant movers-and-shakers (whatever the decade and form of expression) to both inspire his work and add luster to his career; but for my money, Philip Taaffe is a much more interesting artist from the same generation. I strongly recommend that Kanye team up with Taaffe for his next album – and handbag.


Was this “architected”?

As many of you may know, Kanye and Kim showed up at the GSD a few months ago. Kanye gave a stirring speech about design: “I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected.’” (If you haven’t watched the video, please do.)

I agree with Kanye on this subject in general, but I do question his taste given his Christmas present to Kim: a Birkin bag, custom painted by George Condo.

Kanye, was this architected? Please tell me it was not.

– Meera

Gables and Sawtooths

José Javier Gallardo Ortega ///g.bang///, Youth Mental Health Clinic, Zaragoza, Spain

Brooks + Scarpa, Metalsa SA, Automobile Lab and Testing Facility, Apodaca, Mexico

The studio I have been teaching focused on industrial districts and industrial buildings and a field house we are designing for a private school near Boston has made me “sawtooth sensitive.” The youth mental health clinic in Spain (no programmatic analogy to our school project!) and the Brooks + Scarpa factory in Mexico (which has been heavily covered by the design press) both take the regular pattern of a repeating serrated roofline and invite ambiguous poetic allusions by varying the pitch and proportions. In the Scarpa project, the composition can be read as an undulation of increasing intensity – implying to me the a graph charting the increase in sales of cars that are tested at the facility (with troughs when the testing lab breaks down?) or the crumbled hood of a car (but the crash dummies are fine!). The architects claim, on the other hand, that the profile of the roof reflects the silhouette of the nearby mountains.

The architects for the youth mental health clinic have a much more focused alibi for their roof form. “The roof, for the most part a sawtooth shape with variable slopes – very steep at some points – reflects, from the outside, the degree of internal mental activity in relation to the type of rooms they occupy: the resting or sleeping area with a slope of 60%, common areas or with maximum activity have outstanding peak of 240%. The treatment of the spaces occupied by the medical staff and caregivers has been dealt with flat roofs.”


Serendipitous City


Utile is kicking off a planning study for the Worthington Street District in Downtown Springfield that was recently affected by a gas line explosion, damaging dozens of buildings. As we drove through the district, we were welcomed by this building wall. The scars of the stairs from the adjacent building were used like a section for a non-existent building. I’m a fan of building as a canvas for public art, graffiti, murals, etc. It’s always a pleasure to stumble upon a distraction in the sometime relative uniformity of structures. I like an exercise of ingenuity, of seeing how public art is applied onto otherwise neglected structures.

This reminded me of the time I’ve spent in Philadelphia, where I’ve always marveled at the number of murals in the city.beasley-mural

I came to learn that many are a result of the Mural Arts Program, an initiative that Mayor Wilson Goode instituted in 1984 ( and further promoted by Mayor Ed Rendell), as an effort to combat blight and graffiti in Philadelphia neighborhoods.  Jane Golden has been the driving force behind the program. Under her leadership there are now 3,600 murals in Philly that dot the civic landscape. The one above is a mural I often passed at 12th and Walnut. I like the character of it. It seems to straddle somewhere between Early Italian Renaissance and WPA-style Social Realism. More importantly it was an orienting device in the city. And yes, I realize that Philadelphia’s streets are all trees and numbers, but this is an added benefit of public art.


Another excellent group to check out is this Living Walls has begun mapping the murals in the city.

Colored glass

One strategy we haven’t tried (yet) is to use slightly different colors of vision glass to create a more pronounced composition at night. This is what I always liked best about Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque. Importantly, the difference in glass colors – and vision performance – are indistinguishable during the day. Bâtiment administratif du centre bus RATP, a bus depot with associated staff offices in Paris by ECDM architects, is only a more radical (and impractical for most users) example.


The Trouble with Mid-rises

Most of the urban design work we do, if it involves “towers” at all, is in the mid-rise category – either because of FAA air space height regulations (Boston), the market (Hartford and Worcester), and/or context (Providence). This project, 1401 Lawrence in Denver by the Beck Group (and published in the Architects’ Newspaper), isn’t bad – and partly because it wears it’s sources mostly on its sleeve. It includes the obligatory context-making podium/plinth (very Allied Works), a tower above with objectified/delaminated façades (sampling the Times Building by Renzo Piano, but wish the window wall inside the reentrant corners was a little bit more different), and a vertical bookend to bring it all home (from the playbook of Lescaze and Howe’s PSFS Building in Philadelphia). The project also bears more than a little resemblance to Atlantic Wharf in Boston, designed by Robert Brown and team at CBT.


Pragmatism and Polemics

Rendering by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, one of the winners of the 2012 Audi Urban Future Award

I hosted the final review for my research studio yesterday – entitled New Life for Urban Manufacturing Districts – and we had an excellent panel that included Sal Di Stefano, the BRA’s manager of industrial districts; Kevin Hively, an economic development consultant; Northeastern professors Ivan Rupnik and Suzanne Lanyi Charles, and Siqi Zhu, currently on sabbatical at the Sensible City Lab at MIT (and returning to Utile on February 1). We both discussed the content of the final research publication and the direction each student should take with their own individual design proposals in the spring.

My one thought as I reflected on the review in the context of the continuation of our work is how the students and I will need to balance pragmatism with the maybe-competing goal to be polemical – both with each project and as a studio as a whole. I don’t think that a design studio should exactly parallel the "real world" – because if it does, it will only recreate existing conditions (physically, socially, politically, etc.). Instead, I believe in a more critical position – framed as a polemic that is still "realistic-enough" that the plausibility of the proposal might inspire people to act on the proposition.

I am saying this, because some of the feedback yesterday erred on the pragmatic side – partly given our audience. Ivan is an expert on factory production, Suzanne is a real estate analyst, and Kevin and Sal are firmly in a world where "viability" is paramount. But to counterbalance our collective reality test yesterday, I will need to help each student to frame their polemic, so that it is relevant, actionable, inspiring, and not the least bit naïve. Balancing pragmatism and a polemical position is an important skill for the engaged architect and where we each fall on the pragmatism/utopianism scale might be the best way to gauge our relative interest in seeing our ideas actualized.