June 5, 2013
There’s little that James Wines hasn’t done. The highly acclaimed architect has designed commercial showrooms and fast food chains, museums and parks, and is currently working on a cemetery in South Korea. He wrote one of the early tomes on green architecture, urging practitioners to look for holistic and not just technology-driven solutions. With a background in visual arts, Wines founded his firm, SITE (Sculpture in the Environment) in 1970. His willingness to take on any and all projects, from high concept to mainstream often put him at odds with the design world. Despite winning a slew of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Graphic Art, and grants, Wines says he’s remained somewhat of a thorn in the side of the industry.
For his pioneering work in green architecture and his dedication to erasing boundaries in the practice of architecture, Wines was awarded the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2013 Lifetime Achievement Design Award. He says the award, which requires nomination from peers, is a triumph. “First of all, the fact that our government endorses it is a huge jump in the award arena,” says Wines. “It’s good to feel that there’s this national recognition in the design world, it’s a terrific honor, there’s no question about it.”
“We’ve done environmental art, we’ve done architecture, we’ve done work for MTV, work for the rock ‘n’ roll industry, we’ve done products,” says Wines. Because of this, he says, “I’ve always been considered outsider or marginal or alternative.” It’s a stance he never particularly sought out, but he certainly doesn’t eschew.
We talked with the rule-breaker about his career and some of his landmark projects.
So when you founded SITE, you weren’t setting out to turn everything on its ear?
Well, not really. You have sort of a vision. I came from visual art. We all lived on Green Street–somebody called it the Green Street Mafia for environmental art because we had Robert Smithson and Mary Miss and Gordon Matta-Clark and Alice Aycock and everybody converged on one street in Manhattan and it was a dialogue. I think artists were trying to escape from the gallery, you wanted to get out into the streets, you wanted to get where the people are, the idea of hanging pictures or putting sculptures on pedestals it was kind of anathema to my generation.
It’s kind of a suicidal mission, you know. I have coffee with Alice Aycock every morning because she lives right across the street and we’re always commiserating about all the wise artists who continued painting small paintings and did well. We’re always struggling with building departments.
With that background, what does architecture mean to you?
There’s the building, but then there’s the courtyard and the streets and it all flows together.
People in my office always criticize me because no matter how small it is, I get interested in it, because you realize that everything can be transformed or everything could be made more interesting than the norm.
We started in the junk world, with buildings no self-respecting Harvard student would stoop to design, which is shopping centers. But we always say we bring art where you least expect to find it. These are places where you would never expect to find good design or architecture or anything else and we made that transformation.
A recent example of that is the Las Vegas Denny’s, which includes a chapel.
Denny’s is very amusing. Nobody can possibly believe that Denny’s as a corporation, given their history, that they would ever be interested in art. But I always point out, they were the original Googie style. They were really part of that real strip diners, which we now admire today as being historic artifacts. There are whole books on diner style. So it obviously became respected after the fact, but there’s always this association that no self-respecting architect would touch that, so I’ve always liked those things.
There’s this wonderful statement about Picasso I read when I was in school and I agree so much; he said, you don’t make art out of the Parthenon, you make art out of the garbage under your feet. And it’s so true, you look where other people don’t look.
You’ve attracted your fair share of criticism, what do you make of it all?
I was on a panel of artists whose careers started with totally negative criticism, this was 30 years ago, but it was Claus Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella and all these accusatory early criticisms. I was still in school and Roy Lichenstein had his first show and the headline in [Life magazine] was, ‘Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?’ So we all collected our negative criticisms and all these horrible things that were said, particularly by the architecture world–this isn’t real architecture and it won’t last.
Not only did all the people last on the panel, but they lasted a lot better than others. I remember Frank Stella at that time was doing his black pinstripe paintings and he was saying, why do the critics always start out with what you’re not trying to do, instead of trying to critique what you are trying to do.
So how did you survive?
I guess just will power. I think if you can hang in there, what did Woody Allen say, the key to success is showing up? It’s so true. You just keep showing up. But we had good clients. We started with art patrons, which is a good way to start. Young architects always say how did you get started and I say, well I worked with my connections in the art world. So we started with two or three clients who were really art patrons. They weren’t questioning the value of doing it. They weren’t questioning whether it’s architecture.
Later on, when you start getting normal clients, that’s more difficult because you can’t use this esoteric verbiage.
One of your most popular projects is the Shake Shack in New York City. Why are people so crazy about this?
I have no idea. That’s a phenomenon because it was kind of a “let’s see what happens.” That’s a real saga because New York City fought that: you can’t put a commercial enterprise in a park. When they found out there were foundations under there, built in the 19th century, to receive exactly that kind of kiosk, then they couldn’t say anything. City Hall backed down.
One thing led to another and I think it’s our most famous and most beloved project.
Anybody who comes to New York to see me, one of the first things they say is, will you take me to the Shake Shack. It’s iconic I guess. It’s ironic, because the building is sort of the menu in a way. And it’s also highway art in the middle of a lush park. We’re using sort of this hybrid in between a park and a highway.
I took some Iranian students and they stood in line. I said, I’ll sit down, you stand in the line. And they stood in line for an hour. And they were so excited: we got to stand in line! As a New Yorker, I can’t possibly imagine that psychology.
An earlier project in Chattanooga introduced some really high concept bridges into park space, how were those received?
Very well. They messed it all up now, they kept invading it. It used to be the park and then there were small shops around it, it was really nice, very human-scale. Now they’ve got bigger and bigger buildings.
But it was very well-received at the time. The old people sit in the summer under the arches, which are cool and they can watch the children. There were lots of people-watching situations and water and it had all the ingredients of a pleasant public space. All the trees and bushes have grown out, it’s a lush place.
My big interest is still in public space. I would love to do something in New York. Other than the Shake Shack, we’ve never done anything in New York.
May 22, 2013
Just a block from Harlem’s great thoroughfare, 125th Street, is a brownstone listed for a cool $2.3 million, courtesy of the Corcoran Group Real Estate. Advertising its proximity to the subway and trendy restaurants like Red Rooster, the listing provides a snapshot of the dramatic changes underway in the Manhattan neighborhood. Projects like the expansion of the Harlem Hospital Center and the plans for Columbia University and rezoning efforts have brought a wave of development interest to Harlem, which suffered along with the rest of New York during the 1970s when the city was verging on bankruptcy.
In the process, the profile of the neighborhood, long considered the Mecca of African-American culture, has changed. According to census data for Central Harlem, the population of white residents grew by more than 400 percent between 2000 and 2010. In the meantime, the average sale price for housing in Central Harlem increased 270 percent from 1996 to 2006, the fourth largest increase of all neighborhoods city-wide. Starting at the north edge of Central Park on 110th Street, real estate interests staked their claims. Glossy businesses like the hotel chain Aloft moved in.
But for all the attention paid to the changing skyline and demographic profile, Harlem historian and architectural consultant John Reddick argues there’s more beneath the surface of Harlem’s development. He says the roots of the community’s development have long been building to this economic high note, and that despite the common conception that much of this change has come from the outside, it’s established community members who brought it about.
The fight for affordable housing, for better schools, for renovated properties–all that, he says, came from the community itself. “There were people who lived there during the worst of times and really made a commitment and who were part and parcel of the genius to turn things around,” says Reddick, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1980, ”and nobody knows who they are!”
In part to rectify that error and to highlight the ways Harlem inspires and innovates in the design fields, Reddick has been curating a series and lectures and programs in conjunction with the Cooper-Hewitt titled, “Harlem Focus Series,” that will continue through the summer. Museum director Caroline Payson says the series, “encourages people to think about design in their own backyard.”
Reddick has done much of his work in the neighborhood on memorial projects and in the parks, which he calls the “treaty grounds for everybody.” Whether as a place to walk a dog or to hold a barbecue for a birthday party, the parks draw everyone in. His favorite park space is at the north end of Central Park by the Harlem Meer lake, where the landscape is rockier and hillier. “It’s very different from the rest of the park.”
But it’s the people as much as the parks that make Harlem the inviting neighborhood he remembers from his first visit in 1965. “As an African-American, it was just mythic,” he remembers. “I just was energized by all of it. I knew I’d end up here.” Neighborhood staples like the churches felt familiar to Reddick. Others were attracted by that same energy.
Now Harlem is home to a large percentage of African immigrants concentrated on 116th Street, in addition to a growing Asian and Hispanic population. All around him, Reddick says he can see the global influences taking shape in Harlem as it orients itself on a wider stage. Even Harlem’s most famous rapper today, A$AP Rocky borrows from rap cultures around the country in his music while still representing the “pizzazz, spunk, charisma, character” he says is indigenous to his childhood home.
“I think Harlem is this amazing brand,” says Reddick, “greater than Chanel.” And yet, he says, its story has been stunted in the telling.
Reddick’s own research into the Jewish and black roots of music in Harlem prior to the Harlem Renaissance challenges the idea that Harlem was “happening” in discrete moments. Outside historians and writers, he says, are “like explorers in the black community and once they document it, they’re like Columbus: history starts when they decide Harlem is improving or it has value and so it diminishes anything that was there before.”
Harlem’s recent economic development has brought a similar reading. But Reddick says the changes that are just now starting to bring attention have been a long time coming. Fights like the one that kept Marcus Garvey Park, with its amphitheater and swimming pool, public and available to the community helped protect major neighborhood assets.
Decades before City Council speaker Christine Quinn stopped by Make My Cake in Harlem as she set about laying the groundwork for her mayoral bid, JoAnn Baylor was baking up her tasty and addictive creations in her basement, according to a profile of the business on DNAInfo. In 1996, the family opened their first shop. Now with two locations, the shop is co-owned by Baylor’s daughter and has irregular hours which don’t hurt the demand one bit. Though its success was made visible by high-profile patrons and inclusion in a Small Business Saturday American Express campaign, the roots of the business were long part of the neighborhood.
Or there’s the American Legion Post 138 on West 132nd Street in Harlem, whose weekly Sunday jazz jam session was ranked the best free Uptown jazz in 2012 by the Village Voice and is one of Reddick’s personal favorites. Though the show was started in the late 90s, its organizer, Seleno Clarke, has been playing organ professionally for more than 40 years. His connections to Harlem musicians help him keep a steady rotation of guest artists, in addition to the international musicians who also stop by.
The creative, collaborative spirit that enlivens the American Legion is precisely the sort that first attracted Reddick to Harlem and what he hopes to highlight with his Cooper-Hewitt series. “There are creative people who have this energy.” When people talk about things like rooftop gardens and urban farming, he says “people in Harlem are thinking about this, it’s not just happening in other well-to-do neighborhoods.”
The series continues May 22 with architect Jack Travis, who will discuss the Harlem Hospital’s Mural Pavilion, connecting Works Progress Administration-era murals by African-American artists to contemporary African-inspired color palette, pattern and philosophy.
May 20, 2013
Only Michael Sorkin, urban theorist and architect, could write an entire book about his 20-minute walk to work and turn it into an engaging meditation on city life and citizenship. Principal of Michael Sorkin Studio in New York as well as a professor at City College, Sorkin’s unique examination of what makes cities work has earned him the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2013 “Design Mind” Award. Sorkin says he’s honored to have won and has big plans for the celebratory lunch in October. “I have so much to discuss with the president and Michelle Obama,” the honorary patron of the awards.
Sorkin, who is often hard at work on entirely unsolicited plans to improve New York City, says he would like to talk to them about where to put the presidential library. “I think that they have an opportunity to do something much more than simply create a kind of memorial if they put it in the right neighborhood in Chicago,” says Sorkin. “It can be transformative for a neighborhood and not simply for an institution.” Hoping to reflect the kind of community organizing Obama once did in Chicago’s South Side, Sorkin says the building “could include schools and housing and medical facilities, something much broader, in the same way that the Carter Center seeks to have an influence in the world in geopolitical terms, I think that an exemplary project in neighborhood terms could be something fantastic.”
We caught up with the perpetual planner and ponderer in between projects:
You grew up in the D.C. area, what sort of impression did it leave?
I grew up in a very distinctive place, Hollin Hills, a suburban development in Fairfax County that was distinguished for its modernist architecture, designed by a very good D.C. architect, Charles Goodman, who is no longer with us. I have distinct memories of growing up in this glass house. Because it was developed starting in the late 40s, it attracted a particular kind of personality, so it was this little, liberal enclave in the midst of what was then the most progressive county in the United States, so there were strong bonds and interesting people.
The older I got in the 50s, the duller it became. My parents were both native New Yorkers so I looked forward with great anticipation to the holiday trips to see the grandparents in New York and that had an intoxicating smell.
You’ve written about what it takes to get that vitality. Why did New York seem to have more of that?
One of the problems in my childhood and in D.C. was the fact that it was a complete company town. Only after I left, did more than 50 percent of the employment fall into the non-government category, so things were kind of monochrome. It’s always been a very segregated city and some of my days were pre-Brown v. Board of Education. The Virginia schools were segregated, my parents sent me to a progressive school so I could have black playmates but all that was a bit weird to put it mildly.
Are you a New Yorker now?
What does it mean to be a New Yorker?
It means that I don’t think I’ll ever choose to live anywhere else. It means being engaged with the politics of the city. It certainly means having a hopeful and active attitude towards the design of the city’s future. We’re always making unsolicited projects for improvements at various scales around New York.
What’s new in New York?
One of things that’s been going on that I’ve been involved with lately is thinking about the city post-Sandy, which was an incredible wake-up call for the city and the region.
I am personally working on a project, which is an alternative master plan for New York, based on the radical idea of self-sufficiency. We asked ourselves the question five or six years ago whether it was possible for New York City to become completely self-sufficient.
We’ve done food and we’re on to movement, and climate, and energy, and construction, and so on.
What did you find on food?
That it is technically possible to grow 2,000 calories for everybody but would require, everybody’s favorite form: vertical skyscraper farms. We initially thought space was going to be the great inhibitor but if you do that you can probably accumulate enough space. The twin problems we detected are that the energy inputs are staggering, so we’ve estimated that if you wanted to make vertical farms and feed everybody within the political boundaries it would probably take the energy equivalent of 28 atomic power plants, which is not entirely contiguous with the spirit of the exercise. But also, since this thing is also a kind of critique of the mode of production of food and agribusiness–we’re all terribly artisanal and growing ramps in Brooklyn–how would you organize this very large-scale production in a way that wasn’t Monsanto dominated? We think about the condition of lofts and the possibilities of small scale agriculture inhabiting these larger spaces.
It is clear that there are a series of sweet spots that are practical. We’re looking at a scheme where about 30 percent of food production could be done. We’re also looking at schemes where the Erie Canal is revived and more production is done in-state.
What’s guiding design in New York now?
Unclear at the moment, good things have happened in New York in terms of bicycle infrastructure and a million trees planted on the other hand, the income gap gets bigger and bigger. There are 50,000 homeless now, a record. This is a pattern that seems to be characteristic of the United States as a whole. This is also unsustainable.
I think our crisis is to find a way to make the desirable aspects of urbanism, which are not obscure or mysterious, available to everyone in the city.
We don’t face a crisis of design imagination. I think there are lots of great designers and good ideas around. But we do face a crisis in equity.
Reviewing a 1992 book of essays you edited, Variations on a Theme Park about the disappearance of public space, Marshall Berman wrote that if readers accept what the book is saying, the “whole contemporary world turns out to be dreadful, totally alienated, inexorably evil.” Is it really so bad, is that your vision?
It isn’t. Marshall’s a good friend of mine, but he can be a bit of a sourpuss sometimes. That’s a book from a long time ago but I think the idea that all experiences are mediated by big capital, that Walt Disney or Facebook is creating the public space in which you function, is threatening to us all. There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the so-called right to the city, if you’ve read Lefebvre. My understanding or I think the correct understanding of that argument is both that we need access to the city, but we also need access to the possibility of imagining the city the we desire.
May 17, 2013
“Nature” is probably the last word that comes to mind when most people think about urban design. That’s not the case for landscape designer Margie Ruddick, though. For the past 25 years, she has created parks, gardens and waterfronts that blend ecology with city planning.
In New York City, home to many of her works, Ruddick has transformed Queens Plaza by merging plants, water, wind and sun with the city’s infrastructure, and designed a 2.5-acre park along the Hudson River in Battery Park City out of materials recycled from other parks in the area. Her most recent project took nature indoors at Manhattan’s Bank of America Tower, where she created a winter garden with four tall sculptures made of thousands of ferns, mosses and vines. This “Urban Garden Room” was the first ever permanent installation of a living sculpture.
Last week, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum announced that Ruddick would be one of this year’s ten recipients of a 2013 National Design Award, hers for landscape architecture. We caught up with her via e-mail after the announcement to ask her about her work. Below, she tells us more about her award-winning “green” approach to design, why it is important and what it will mean for the future of architecture.
What is the idea behind living sculptures in urban design? What effect do they have?
The idea for this space was to allow visitors to feel immersed in nature in a small interior space with severe natural light limitations. A traditional atrium planting (like the bamboo in the 590 Madison Ave Atrium, formerly the IBM building) would have had little impact, given the small space, plus traditional plantings would have leaned toward the light. (Keep in mind that a fascination with over-sized, topiary sculptures has emerged in the past decade. Jeff Koons‘ “Puppy” is one of his most popular pieces, constantly traveling to enliven public spaces around the world.) The effect I wanted to have in the Urban Garden Room was to feel as if you have stepped out of the city and into a fern canyon. Visitors report that there is something about the air quality—the humidity and the smell of earth—that automatically makes them feel more relaxed and able to breathe deeply and calmly.
Why are urban green environments important in a city?
OMG! From ancient Chinese gardens to Vitruvius to Olmsted (and to the present era of urban greening) people have recognized the health impact of green spaces—cleaning air, cooling the earth, etc.—but also the psychological impact. There are numerous studies finding that parks and green spaces improve mood, focus, and even intelligence. I think a city without green environments can hardly survive .
How did you get involved in creating these types of environments?
I joined the horticulture work crew of Central Park in 1983 and two years later went to graduate school in landscape architecture. I was bitten by the bug!
What role do you see green projects playing in architecture in the next 10 years?
More and more architectural proposals integrate “a green element” into buildings and built environments. Green roofs, wild green terraces – the vision in a lot of architecture journals these days is of nature completely integrated as part of the city and part of architecture, rather than distinguishing between nature and building. But, a lot of the images look like the architecture has been colonized by wild plantings, and not conceived from the same idea or the same pen. I do think right now it is something of a fad, and that in ten years the reality of how you actually do this and keep buildings standing up and water-tight will have led to an architecture that doesn’t look as much like something that was left to go to seed, but a tighter and more rigorous integration of green into structure.
What obstacles do you have to overcome when creating a living sculpture or an “urban green machine” in the middle of New York City?
The obstacles are huge, for both public streetscapes and private buildings. At Queens Plaza [where "Urban Green Machine" was installed], the design team and client had to navigate between numerous city and state agencies. Bureaucratic coordination is probably the biggest challenge, as well as staging construction in order never to close streets, and then the question of who is going to maintain the landscape and with what funds. In the case of the Urban Garden Room, the construction and maintenance costs were and are prohibitive, but The Durst Organization decided that they would invest in a signature green space in the city’s first LEED platinum building. The structural issues, staging issues (to get the sculpture in 13 pieces shipped to New York from Montreal and installed in the building over one weekend), and maintenance issues were enormous. There were also a lot of plant losses. The bulk of the sculpture planting is now the two or three most vigorous plants, as a number of plant species did not adjust through a chaotic first season.
What projects are you working on now?
I never know very far ahead what is coming down the pike—I work on a small number of projects at a time, collaborating closely with architects, artists and landscape architects on everything from concept through details. I am currently working on a housing project in Taiwan, a marine ecology project on Long Island and a water garden for a private residence in Miami—he gamut from planning to finely honed design. I also have written a book, Wild By Design [forthcoming] that I hope will raise consciousness about landscape, how important it is and how we actually go about working in the field.
What does it mean to you to win a National Design Award?
It has a professional meaning as well as a profound personal relevance. Professionally, I am really gratified to see that this year’s winners are mostly individuals, doing work that is very particular, in addition to being pioneering. I think it reflects the rising value the culture gives to creativity, and the art of what we do. Personally, I grew up visiting the Cooper-Hewitt often, to the galleries and lectures, and there is no telling what I would be without these visits. There is no institution in America that has done more for designers and design education, so receiving this award is seriously humbling.
May 9, 2013
Recognizing everything from landscape architecture to fashion, the 2013 Cooper-Hewitt Design Awards recognize the best in design. Some names, like this year’s winner for Corporate and Institutional Achievement, TED, are familiar, while others may be new to most.
Within academic circles, for example, Michael Sorkin is a well-known architecture and planning critic and professional whose texts show up on college syllabuses across the country. His 2011 All Over the Map: Writing on Buildings and Cities takes on his own New York City, including the controversial Ground Zero Memorial and proves why his is a bold and valued voice in the field. For this and other works, Sorkin is being honored with the Design Mind award.
For the other honorees, we’ll let their posters, gardens, restaurants and clothing speak for themselves:
Landscape Architecture, Margie Ruddick
When asked to create a “winter garden” for the Bank of America Tower in New York City, Ruddick created this living sculpture. She says, “we created an immersive green environment that is designed to make you feel like you have stepped into the natural world of the city.”
Communication Design, Paula Scher
Known for her rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic–she’s designed posters for Elvis Costello–Paula Scher is a clear voice in communication design. Her advice to aspiring designers? “Find out what the next thing is that you can push, that you can invent, that you can be ignorant about, that you can be arrogant about, that you can fail with, and that you can be a fool with. Because in the end, that’s how you grow.”
Interior Design, Aidlin Darling Design
Aidlin Darling’s design for this ultra-hip San Francisco bar and hangout got almost as much attention as the food. Generous with the wood, the design also employed billowing glass curtains.
Architectural Design, Studio Gang Architects
Designed for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, this structure takes its inspiration from a tortoise shell. The archway was part of a larger boardwalk that transformed an urban pond into “an ecological habitat buzzing with life.”
Fashion Design, Behnaz Sarafpour
Sarafpour began her career in New York in 1989 when she attended the Parsons School of Design. Since then, her work has found its way into special lines for Target and several museums, including the Victoria and Albert in London.
Interaction Design, Local Projects
To gather the stories of a mining community for an area museum, Local Projects built a recording studio from ”a trailer clad entirely in copper…in homage to the single metal that the Southwest is famous for supplying.”
Product Design, NewDealDesign
Based in San Francisco, NewDealDesign combines graphic, interaction and industrial design to create products that also serve as solutions.
Lifetime Achievement, James Wines
Wines has long integrated green design principles into his work, such as this Las Vegas Denny’s that also includes a wedding chapel.