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Sarah Booth Conroy Prize

March 11, 2017

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I am deeply honored to have won the annual Sarah Booth Conroy Prize from the American Institute of Architects’ D.C. chapter. Conroy (1928-2009) covered architecture, city history, and high society during a long and storied career at The Washington Post, and the prize named for her recognizes journalists who write about the city’s architecture and urban design. I’m grateful to AIA|DC for setting up this program (which is only two years old) to support local architectural journalism.

More on Conroy and the prize:

Sarah Booth Conroy (The Washington Post)

Sarah Booth Conroy Prize for Journalism and Architectural Criticism (AIA|DC)

Amanda Kolson Hurley wins AIA|DC architectural journalism prize (Curbed DC)

‘Memorials for the Future’ Doesn’t Solve Our Memorial Problem

June 14, 2016

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Climate Chronograph. Team: Azimuth Land Craft (Erik Jensen, Rebecca Sunter)

The Memorials for the Future competition sponsored by the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Van Alen Institute is a breath of fresh air. The idea behind it is simple: designers were asked to imagine alternatives to the great-men-in-marble paradigm that has shaped official Washington. They were encouraged to be inclusive and flexible, and to experiment with “temporary, mobile, interactive or adaptive displays” that would be more cost-efficient and gobble up less land than traditional memorials.

Competitors answered the call with imagination. Among the semifinalists were MonYOUment, a set of handheld micro-memorials that would log personal stories; an inverted pyramid for the taking of selfies (the “Memorial to Otherness”); and a local favorite, the Cultur-Altar, a shrine shaped like the symbol that Prince once used as his name, where people could bring items to be ritually burned. So far, so weird (and good).

MonYOUment. Team: Katie Hargrave, Amber Ginsburg, Meredith Lynn

The four concepts chosen as finalists last week are smart and all seem feasible, more or less. VOICEOVER would add a layer of commentary from multiple perspectives to existing memorials, expanding their interpretive possibilities. American Wild makes clever use of everyday spaces—the interiors of underground Metro stations—by projecting panoramic images of national parks onto the coffered vaults, awakening us both to the majesty of the wild landscapes and the nobility of Harry Weese’s station architecture, which we have come to take for granted. THE (IM)MIGRANT would unfurl a narrative of migration across a D.C. neighborhood. The most ambitious proposal, Climate Chronograph, envisions a river’s-edge grove of cherry trees that would slowly be engulfed by rising waters, with the dead trees reading as a register of climate change.

The first three proposals would graft new stories onto old spaces, enriching our encounters with them. Considered as variations of the same basic approach, it’s hard to fault them: memorials could be made quickly and cheaply this way, adapting to events as they unfold, and allowing for a chorus of voices rather than privileging a singular one. Only the fourth concept suggests an clear object of memorialization—the slow-motion tragedy of climate change—as well as a novel means of expressing it. In this case, the device (a grove of trees) has a permanence and spatial scope that entail the usual price tag, so I have to wonder if it stands a chance in the final selection.

VOICEOVER. Team: Talk Talk (Anca Trandafirescu, Troy Hillman, Yurong Wu, Amy Catania Kulper)

As much as I like the ideas, I can’t help but feel that they’re skirting the main issue, which is the what of memorial-making more than the how. What do we, as a society, choose to memorialize? What do we mark, setting it apart from the mass of daily cares and concerns? Deciding that is tough in a pluralistic society, and Finalists One, Two and Three basically dodge the question.

But the how plays a part, too, because the instinct to memorialize is in large part an urge for fixity—an agreement, a social contract, to value something not just today or this year but for decades into the future. Building a physical memorial, in real space, both reflects this contract and holds us to it. The monument anchors today’s collective emotions in tomorrow’s physical landscape, where its value is partly derived from finitude (ground area is a limited resource).

It would be logical for us to change the prevailing attitude to commemoration. An immersive multimedia display grabs attention, whereas a stone marker is usually ignored even by the people who walk past it every day. An audio “layer” draped over part of the city helps us rediscover old landmarks through new (to us) history and interpretations. At such low cost, and requiring no new real estate, digital methods raise the prospect of limitless memorialization. And surely that’s a good thing?

American Wild: A Memorial. Team: DHLS (Forbes Lipschitz, Halina Steiner, Shelby Doyle, Justine Holzman)

It ought to be—yet “limitless memorialization” is an oxymoron. Establishing a memorial is by definition an act of privileging one event or people or viewpoint above others. The more contingent and reversible the means, the more inoffensively feel-good the content, the less powerful the “memorial” that results. Don’t get me wrong: vivid panoramas of national parks in Metro stations would be fabulous! But they would be public-service announcements, not memorials. A selfie-taking pyramid would be a fun interactive addition to the city—but again, not a memorial.

It’s true that the monumental core of D.C. is running out of space, and adding more memorials to the Mall would only make it look like Grandma’s attic. The prohibition on new memorials in the Commemorative Works Act is necessary. The only option soon for groups that want a memorial will be to look outside of downtown Washington for a site—or consider one of these alternative approaches. Inconveniently for the National Park Service, however, people are not going to see them as being on par with a solid, tangible memorial for a while yet.

As our country finally gets around to recognizing the contributions of African Americans, Latino/as, and other historically marginalized groups, you can see why not. What if Congress had told advocates for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, sorry, no room at the inn—you’ll have to make do with a virtual museum? The ground of the Mall is invested with heavy symbolism, representing the heart of American democracy. It would be naive to think that groups wanting a place there will be content with a glorified app. By conflating new, flexible, alternative forms with diversity, the contest invites the conclusion that minority groups are being relegated to second-tier options. I am sure that is not the intention, but it can be viewed that way.

These are good ideas, and it’s great that the Park Service will implement one of them. But we shouldn’t expect it to solve the problem of too many would-be memorial builders and too little space. Groups will still clamor for the physical representation they perceive as their due. And activists and politicians will still wrangle over the memorials’ content.

Out of the four finalist designs, the one I’d like to see win is Climate Chronograph. But good luck getting a single federal dollar allocated to it. One way that temporary/digital memorials ought to function is as tactical urbanism. They can win buy-in for politically difficult designs, opening the door to commemoration with a larger or more lasting scope. Because if we can only tackle topics like climate change and immigration and gun violence via videos and podcasts? As a certain presidential candidate might say: Sad!

The Tyranny of Snacks

May 31, 2015

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Last week I ranted in The Washington Post about kids and the culture of excessive, enforced snacking (aka Snackism). Commenters either said “amen” or told me to butt out of their child-rearing. One guy said I’m why the terrorists hate us.

Anyway, I went on KMBZ in Kansas City to talk snacks, which was fun, and assured all the snack-toting parents I know that they are better people than I am. (They are.)  I even brought some snacks to my son’s last soccer game of the season – whether out of irony or guilt, I don’t know.

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Rediscovering Peter Blake

May 26, 2015

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…and the story behind Venturi’s famous duck 

Maybe I should have titled this post “Discovering Peter Blake” instead, because although I’d heard the name, I didn’t know much about the man until recently. Over the years I’d come across scattered references to God’s Own Junkyard, Blake’s 1964 jeremiad against “the flood of ugliness engulfing America”—the tide of billboards and neon and tract houses unleashed during the postwar building boom. Robert Venturi invoked God’s Own in his classic Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which appeared two years later, and which I re-read a few weeks ago.

This time, I was sufficiently intrigued to buy a copy of Blake’s book online, along with No Place Like Utopia, his architectural memoir, if that’s the best way to describe it.

Who was Peter Blake? First off, he is not the pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who designed the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. This Peter Blake was born Peter Blach in Germany in 1920. His father was the head of a public utility company, and he grew up wealthy in Berlin, with an English governess and chauffeur. That changed abruptly in 1933. The Nazis removed his father—who was Jewish—from his job, confiscated all his property, and expelled the family from the country. It was very fortunate, in retrospect.

The story of Blake’s early years, at least as it is told in No Place Like Utopia, is that of an almost preternaturally lucky young man. Blake wants to become an architect: good thing his father happens to know Walter Gropius, who secures him an internship with Serge Chermayeff in London. Later, while studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Blake is hired by a still-obscure local architect, a “sweet, romantic, hopelessly impractical, and slightly incomprehensible dreamer” named Louis Kahn.

At a party one night, Blake meets a girl; she is working for an English family that lives nearby, and lo and behold, the family is that of the great philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Blake (right) with Jackson Pollock in 1949

Blake (right) with Jackson Pollock in 1949

All of this would start to grate if Blake wasn’t so charming and didn’t have such juicy anecdotes about the luminaries he keeps bumping into. As a very junior writer at Architectural Forum magazine, Blake decides to write an honest review of Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly published autobiography, which he finds pompous and turgid. He leaves the draft on his editor’s desk and goes to lunch. In the meantime, the Great Man himself—routinely fawned over by the magazine’s senior editors—sweeps into the magazine’s offices and finds it.

When Blake returns, his colleagues look pale and the draft is still there. Scrawled across it in red crayon are the words, “George—I always thought you were a son of a bitch, but now I know! F. LL. W.” (The editors are able to talk Wright down, and Blake isn’t punished for his transgression, although the review is pulled and replaced with a positive one.)

After the war, in which Blake serves as a U.S. intelligence officer, he meets Philip Johnson at a cocktail party in the Hamptons. Weeks later he is speaking on a panel at MoMA at Johnson’s invitation. Afterwards, Johnson and MoMA’s director, Alfred Barr, take him out to lunch: Would he like to become the museum’s new architecture curator? Blake still doesn’t have a degree, and he’s not quite sure what a curator does. But he accepts.

Many of Blake’s best stories are about Johnson—who was arrogant and bitchy, he concedes, but also charming, brilliant, and capable of surprising generosity—as well as Mies, Kahn, “Lajko” Breuer, and his Architectural Forum colleagues (he returned to the magazine after a stint at MoMA), many of them European emigres like himself.

Blake’s critical judgments have aged well, too, for the most part. He saw that Wright was a genius as well as a megalomaniac. He recognized the brilliance of Paul Rudolph, and would no doubt be distraught to see many of Rudolph’s buildings threatened with demolition today. He admits that his first impression of Lewis Mumford was utterly wrong (he thought he was a fuddy-duddy) and that it took him a long time to grasp the importance of Jane Jacobs.

No Place Like Utopia captures the heady spirit of an era when progressive designers really thought they could change the world, but a few too many chapters begin with some sighing variation of, “Ah, those were great times to be alive!”

God’s Own Junkyard is an entirely different sort of book. In the foreword, Blake explains that it “was not written in anger. It was written in fury.” It is a blistering indictment of the uglification of America’s landscape in 150 pages, many of them given over to photographic evidence of the crass billboards and gimcrack architecture that Blake believed were ruining the country. There is a clear precedent in Ian Nairn’s “Outrage” issue of the Architectural Review, published in 1955, an indignant chronicle of the “subtopia” that was swallowing Britain, according to Nairn.

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The funny thing about reading God’s Own now, though, is that many of the places in the photos look…not that bad? And even kind of good. Venturi himself points this out in Complexity and Contradiction. “The pictures in this book that are supposed to be bad are often good. The seemingly chaotic juxtapositions of honky-tonk elements express an intriguing kind of vitality and validity…”.

One building in Blake’s rogues’ gallery stands out: It’s the Big Duck, the bird-shaped building built by a duck farmer on Long Island to sell, fittingly, ducks and duck eggs. Blake doesn’t comment on it, his preferred strategy being to let the photos speak for themselves. But the result of him including it was not what he anticipated. Even in Blake’s time, the duck was a beloved piece of Americana (it’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and would have made most readers smile, not howl in outrage.

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National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons

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Sensing this, Venturi responded by appropriating the Big Duck as a Postmodern mascot—and an enduring architectural metaphor was born. The tug of war over the duck made Blake question his stance in God’s Own and, ultimately, back away from it (although, an earnest Modernist through and through, he never could come around to the archness of PoMo). The passage he devotes to the dispute in No Place Like Utopia is worth reading:

Venturi was clearly a serious and thoughtful critic of the Modern Movement. He was also a witty one: I had recently published a book entitled God’s Own Junkyard in which I attacked the sort of commercial vandalism that was destroying the American landscape and townscape. Most of the book consisted of photographs of what to me seemed exceptionally vulgar examples of this sort of vandalism—and these were contrasted with examples of natural and manmade environments that struck me as idyllic and increasingly threatened by vulgarians.

One of the “vulgar” examples I showed was the Big Duck near Riverhead in Eastern Long Island, an area which I had come to know very well and to cherish before it was yuppified by rich summer people; and the Big Duck was a store for the sale of dead ducks and their postmortem by-products.

Venturi argued that the Big Duck was a perfectly valid architectural statement…he further argued that every building that expressed its purpose with clarity and effective imagery was doing precisely what the Parthenon (for example) had done in its own time and place. “The Parthenon,” Venturi wrote, “is a Duck!” And this became one of the slogans of the Postmodern Movement…

I must confess that I laughed out loud the first time I read this definition of the Parthenon. Within a year or two of the appearance of God’s Own Junkyard (in 1963), to the applause of thousands of do-gooders, I had begun to realize that my view in writing the book had been more than a little narrow and obvious, and that I had shown almost no interest in popular imagery or, for that matter, in the increasingly visible images of Pop Art.

Venturi made off with the whole basket of duck eggs, in the end.

Blake died in 2006, at the age of 86. I’d like to read his articles in old issues of Forum as well as New York magazine, where he wrote an architecture column. He was the dean of the architecture school at Catholic University in later life, and complained that Washington was a cultural wasteland (it was the early ’80s, so he was probably right).

As a former architecture-magazine editor and a Washingtonian myself, I can’t help but feel a sense of kinship with Peter Blake, and wish he were better known.

Malls Aren’t Dying, Actually

March 31, 2015

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Last week I wrote an article for CityLab arguing that the “dying malls” phenomenon is exaggerated—most American shopping malls are doing fine, and the higher-end ones are doing very well indeed.

The story got picked up by Monocle’s radio station in London. Yesterday, I talked to the host of The Monocle Daily about why those dead-mall photos are so powerful, and why building a big new shopping mall in Miami is not, in fact, a crazy idea. You can listen here if you like (the segment starts at about 27:40).