Reimagining Suburbia

What if the world’s greatest architects began looking beyond the city limits?

The American Scholar, Autumn 2015

Renzo Piano may be the most urban, and urbane, of great architects working today. He made his name in Paris in the 1970s, when he and Richard Rogers designed the Pompidou Center, a machine of a museum bristling with exposed steel and pipes. The “inside-out” building provoked howls from Parisians at first, but the Pompidou soon became a beloved landmark and helped revive the then-ailing Marais district. Since that time, the Italian architect has designed a master plan for the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. He has built an airport in Osaka and the tallest skyscraper in London. He has left elegant, precisely crafted museums and galleries in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. So critics did a double take last year when Piano announced that he was designing a new shopping center in San Ramon, California. Renzo Piano—winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel—was designing a suburban mall?

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Young-Old: Deane Simpson Q&A

Simpson discusses his new book on the evolution and sociology of retirement communities.

Architect, September 2015

In his new book, Deane Simpson, an architect who teaches at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, chronicles the rise of communities built for older people—not the infirm elderly, but the active or “young-old.” Demographic and political forces have combined to create this new life phase, also known as the Third Age—when people are retired yet in relatively good health, roughly from ages 55 to 75. In Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society (Lars Müller Publishers, 2015), Simpson deciphers the appeal, the unusual urban logic, and the future of these communities, from a Dutch-style retiree village in Japan to the dispersed, mobile communities of American RV drivers.

Why were you drawn to young-old communities as a research topic?
It started on a road trip in the southern states of the U.S. that I went on with some fellow students in 1997. One evening we ended up in a bar in St. Petersburg, Fla., and we were the youngest there by about 40 years or so. We were given some really unwelcoming stares. It was this very strange domination of an area by what felt like, at the time, a singular age group. I became very intrigued by this social and spatial condition, where the rules of what I was normally used to were put aside.

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Hearing Loss in the City

What It’s Like to Be Hearing Impaired* in a Big, Dense City

An artist tackles the challenges of navigating dense urban areas with hearing loss.

CityLab, Sept. 18, 2015

The multimedia artist Trish Adams began losing her hearing in her mid-twenties. She now wears high-end hearing aids in both ears and continues to communicate through speech. But living in a big city—in her case, Melbourne, Australia—can still be frustrating.

After moving to Melbourne, Adams started noticing how intrusive various urban sounds could be: traffic roaring, car horns honking, music blasting, jackhammers drilling. Cities also give rise to chance social interactions, a large part of their appeal, but a source of stress for those with hearing loss.

To help others understand how she experiences her city, Adams created the exhibit Disconnections. Working with a psychologist who specializes in sensory processing and with the Creative interventions, Art and Rehabilitative Technology (CiART) lab at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), she made two video works, which debuted at the University of Melbourne in April.

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*Since this story was published, some people who are Deaf and hard of hearing have told me they take issue with the term “hearing impaired.” My apologies if I caused inadvertent offense.  

Del Webb 2.0

The Subtle Shifts in Retirement Community Designs

Del Webb, the country’s biggest builder of “active adult” housing, is changing its formula to appeal to Baby Boomers.

CityLab, Sept. 8, 2015

On January 1, 1960, the Del E. Webb Corporation invited members of the public to see its new community, Sun City, Arizona. Sun City was not just a new development, but a new concept: a place where senior citizens could enjoy a busy, social retirement, playing golf and shuffleboard in year-round sunshine. It was so novel that company executives were not sure anyone would come.

Instead, 100,000 people flocked to the grand opening, touring the model homes, the golf course, the shopping center. By 1970, Sun City had a population of 16,000; it now has 37,000 residents and a sister development next door, Sun City West, with another 25,000.

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Silver Spring Library Review

Silver Spring’s Ho-Hum Library 

The Washington Post, Aug. 2, 2015

The new Silver Spring branch of the Montgomery County library opened to much fanfare. The building is big — five stories, three of which are for the library — and sits on one of the busiest corners downtown. Designed by the Lukmire Partnership, an Arlington architecture firm, this library does much more than house books. It has e-readers at the checkout desk and a large, casual area for teens, public meeting rooms and a digital media lab. Appropriately, the architects chose a contemporary material palette of glass, concrete and steel. The result is a building that fits right into its urban setting and allows readers to bask in the daylight that floods in through glass walls.

The Silver Spring Library anchors the southwest corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. It fills a crucial gap in the street edge along Wayne, and the increase in foot traffic will enliven that up-and-coming corridor. The library’s main entrance, on Fenton Street, represents an effort to draw the energy of downtown Silver Spring south into the Fenton Village neighborhood. A nearby apartment building for older adults will help with that once finished.

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Photograph by Brittany Greeson