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.
July 16, 2012
Buzzy titles like these now populate the TED talks website and attract thousands of viewers the same day they appear. Few people haven’t been told they “have to watch this one lecture on TED” by friends amped on a new idea. But the very first TED conference back in 1984 was a relative flop, according to its creator Richard Saul Wurman.
Though Wurman led TED into more prosperous times, still enjoyed today, he tired of the format and sold the enterprise to Chris Anderson in 2001. He is now preparing to unveil his newest project, WWW, calling it the conference of the 21st century. Wurman, this year’s winner of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Lifetime Achievement Award, is known both for founding the blockbuster conference series and for his propensity to grow restless and move on to the next thing.
Starting in architecture, he hopped from book writing to conference organizing. With each venture, whether he was writing a guide to investing or a foreign city, Wurman used new ways to visualize and communicate information. Sometimes called an “intellectual hedonist,” his work follows his curiosity as it zigs and zags across media.
“I am an unusual choice to win the lifetime achievement award,” insists Wurman. His path to success doesn’t trace the typical vertical route up the hierarchy. Instead, he says he’s worked horizontally on disparate ideas united by his impulse to design and explain.
Along with this year’s nine other Design Award winners, Wurman had a packed Friday dining at the White House with Michelle Obama, but began his day at the Cooper-Hewitt’s third annual Teen Design Fair. Students from New York City and Washington, D.C. were invited to talk with dozens of experts working in architecture, fashion, urban and landscape design, industrial design and communications.
Students circled around Wurman, whose craft was listed as “Architecture/Interiors.”
“I don’t own a suit,” he tells the students. “I don’t own a tie. I never dress up.” Wurman delights in the iconoclast role and drew the students in with his frank way of talking. It’s no coincidence his TED conferences were modeled on the same kind of frank, anti-establishment thought.
Wurman began with one of his five methods of innovation: subtraction. “I subtracted panels of white men in suits, CEOs and politicians, lecterns, long speeches,” recalls Wurman.
By now his signature 18-minute time frame is familiar and the diversity of speakers he attracted introduced new voices to the spotlight. These bite-sized, personal lectures, though held in a very exclusive setting, make online viewers feel they are part of the idea and not just hearing about it. But even that format has grown cumbersome in Wurman’s mind.
On the move yet again, Wurman is working on a new project called WWW, which he describes as the conference of the 21st century. TED now falls squarely in the 20th century, according to him. Subtracting both set presentations and time constraints, WWW will create “intellectual jazz” between two “of the most extraordinary people” Wurman knows. For good measure, musical directors Herbie Hancock and Yo-Yo Ma will add improvised contributions. The whole project is driven by the experimental whims of its creator; “When I’m tired of listening to them, I pull them off stage.”
The first talk is set for September 18-20, but he says he has no clue who the participants will be yet. Once he settles on guests, Wurman will help build an app for each conference allowing viewers to learn as much as they possibly can about each speaker. If the speaker is Frank Gehry, “They’ll see Frank Gehry talking about 30 buildings he never got to build,” explains Wurman, promising interviews, baby photos and even a look at the personal notes and work of each subject.
Branded as the future of conferences, WWW actually draws inspiration from 19th century salons with Wurman playing the role of Gertrude Stein. As TED moves further into the realm of lectures and ideas that “make a difference,” Wurman seems more concerned with the very nature of an idea as a social product.
And, of course, he’s concerned with staying curious. As soon as something fails to hold his interest, he’s on to the next project.
It’s Wurman’s salon, after all, and we’re just stopping by.
February 7, 2012
Our inquisitive readers are rising to the challenge we gave them last month. The questions are pouring in and we’re ready for more. Do you have any questions for our curators? Submit your questions here.
How much is the Hope Diamond worth? — Marjorie Mathews, Silver Spring, Maryland
That’s the most popular question we get, but we don’t really satisfy people by giving them a number. There are a number of answers, but the best one is that we honestly don’t know. It’s a little bit like Liz Taylor’s jewels being sold in December—all kinds of people guessed at what they would sell for, but everybody I know was way off. Only when those pieces were opened up to bidding at a public auction could you find out what their values were. When they were sold, then at least for that day and that night you could say, well, they were worth that much. The Hope Diamond is kind of the same way, but more so. There’s simply nothing else like it. So how do you put a value on the history, on the fact it’s been here on display for over 50 years and a few hundred million people have seen it, and on that fact it’s a rare blue diamond on top of everything else? You don’t. – Jeffrey E. Post, mineralogist, National Museum of Natural History
What’s the worst impact of ocean acidification so far?- Nancy Schaefer, Virginia Beach, Virginia
The impacts of ocean acidification are really just starting to be felt, but two big reports that came out in 2011 show that it could have very serious effects on coral reefs. These studies did not measure the warming effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but rather its effect of making the ocean more acidic when it dissolves in the ocean. Places where large amounts of carbon dioxide seep into the water from the sea floor provide a natural experiment and show us how ocean waters might look, say, 50 or 100 years from now. Both studies showed branching, lacy, delicate coral forms are likely to disappear, and with them that kind of three-dimensional complexity so many species depend on. Also, other species that build a stony skeleton or shell, such as oysters or mussels, are likely to be affected. This happens because acidification makes carbonate ions, which these species need for their skeletons, less abundant.
Nancy Knowlton, marine biologist
National Museum of Natural History
Art and artifacts from ancient South Pacific and Pacific Northwest tribes have similarities in form and function. Is it possible that early Hawaiians caught part of the Kuroshio Current of the North Pacific Gyre to end up along the northwest coast of America from northern California to Alaska? — April Amy Croan, Maple Valley, Washington
Those similarities have given rise to various theories, including trans-Pacific navigation, independent drifts of floating artifacts, inadvertent crossings by ships that have lost their rudders or rigging, or whales harpooned in one area that died or were captured in a distant place. Some connections are well-known, like feather garment fragments found in an archaeological site in Southeast Alaska that appear to have been brought there by whaling ships that had stopped in the Hawaiian Islands, a regular route for 19th-century whalers. Before the period of European contact, the greatest similarities are with the southwest Pacific, not Hawaii. The Kushiro current would have facilitated Asian coastal contacts with northwestern North America, but would not have helped Hawaiians. The problem of identification is one of context, form and dating. Most of the reported similarities are either out of their original context (which can’t be reconstructed), or their form is not specific enough to relate to another area’s style, or the date of creation cannot be established. To date there is no acceptable proof for South Pacific-Northwest Coast historical connections that predates the European whaling era, except for links that follow the coastal region of the North Pacific into Alaska.
William Fitzhugh, archeologist
Natural History Museum
October 26, 2011
For decades, in Medellín, Columbia, the difference between rich and poor areas has been a virtual tale of two cities. “The formal city grew in the valley, and the informal settlement on the hills around. It was the most violent city in the world” says Cynthia E. Smith, a curator of socially responsible design at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York City.
Then, the city embarked on a large-scale project to tie the two areas together, building a cable mass transit system up the hillsides and surrounding the stations with parks. “The mayor said ‘I want to build the most beautiful buildings in the poorest parts of the city,’ and so he built worldclass libraries and business centers next to the parks,” Smith says. Over time, violence in the outlying areas of the cities dropped sharply and land values rose.
Medellín is one of dozens of success stories, large and small, that fill the newly opened “Design with the Other 90%: Cities” exhibition at the United Nations Building in New York. On Manhattan’s East Side, among skyscrapers and luxury hotels in one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, the exhibition showcases how the world’s most destitute countries have solved integral problems of housing, health care, infrastructure and the environment. Through multimedia, scale models, maps and prototypes, the show illustrates to visitors the worries of daily life in the squatter communities of countries like India, Uganda and Mexico—as well as the potential for design to provide solutions.
In recent years, urbanization and population growth in developing countries have caused countless problems in cities across Asia, Africa and South America to escalate. “Close to one billion people live in informal settlements, more commonly known as slums or squatter communities, and that’s projected to grow to two billion over the next 20 years,” Smith says. “Many municipalities and regional governments can’t keep up with this rapid growth, and so there’s an exchange that’s taking place between the informal communities and designers, architects, urban planners and engineers.”
“The show is specifically design ‘with,’” she says. “It’s really about working in partnership with people in the informal settlements, exchanging design information so that they can build their own, better housing.”
The show features 60 novel design approaches that have been applied to problems as varied as transferring money to relatives (using a mobile phone based system) and charging devices without an electrical grid (running a bicycle wheel to create an electrical current).
They also range from the ingeniously obvious to the remarkably intricate. In Bangladesh, arsenic is the most common toxin in drinking water, and in severe cases can cause death. Abul Hussam, a chemist at George Mason University designed the SONO Water Filter to address this problem as simply and inexpensively as possible. “It’s a sand and composite iron matrix, and wood charcoal, and brick chips,” says Smith. “You just pour in the water, and it filters through, and you end up without toxins.”
In Uganda, meanwhile, researchers found an information gap: only 3 percent of Ugandan adults typically use the internet, compared to 15 percent in neighboring Kenya. A UNICEF team created the Digital Drum, a freestanding solar-powered computing hub. “They work locally with car mechanics to build them,” Smith says, using discarded oil drums to enclose rugged computers equipped with basic software. “They provide some very basic information about rights and safety, health, education, and there are games on here that the kids can play to teach them about math.”
In designing the exhibition, which updates the original 2007 Cooper-Hewitt “Design with the Other 90%” show, Smith traveled the world and consulted with an international panel to select the range of projects shown. Along with the exhibition and the website, Smith says, “We have a new ‘Design with the Other 90%’ network, which is a social network linked to the website, where designers can upload their own projects.”
Along with the show’s backers, which include the UN Academic Impact Initiative, Smith hopes to use this network—and the exhibition’s placement at the UN—to spark further innovation and collaboration among the international design community. “Because this growth is happening so quickly, you can look at it as one billion problems, or one billion solutions,” she says.
Wandering the rows of innovations on display, ones sees that the point of “Design with the Other 90%” is not that solutions are immediate or easy. It’s made clear, through graphics and data, that the developing world’s problems are growing exponentially. But the exhibition is uplifting; despite seemingly daunting circumstances, design can put relief within reach—and the movement to employ it in slums and squatter communities is growing.
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s “Design with the Other 90%: Cities” is on display at the UN Building in New York City through January 9, 2012.
July 6, 2011
Last week, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum hosted a dedication ceremony for the U.S. Postal Service’s new set of stamps honoring 12 pioneers in American industrial design.
Each stamp features a sleek product, be it a camera, flatware or typewriter, on a white backdrop, and the name of the design and its designer. The designers chosen include Peter Müller-Munk, Frederick Hurten Rhead, Raymond Loewy, Donald Deskey, Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, Dave Chapman, Greta von Nessen, Eliot Noyes, Russel Wright and Gilbert Rohde.
“They were very important in getting the profession of industrial design off of the ground,” says Gail Davidson, head curator of Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. “A number of these people were immigrants to the United States. These were men who were in the right place at the right time. Many of them were artists. They could not make a career in the fine arts, and they turned to industrial design as a way of making a living. Many of them entered the profession through set design and costume design. People like Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss would be included in that group. Other people entered the profession through advertising or window display. Raymond Loewy is an example of that group and also Donald Deskey.”
The field of industrial design emerged in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, when manufacturers turned to designers to create products with a modern look. What resulted were products that were simple, functional and more aesthetically clean than their ornate predecessors. After World War II, products were mass produced and designers experimented with new materials, such as plastic, vinyl, chrome, aluminum and plywood, which made the products more reasonably priced. “Industry turned to designers directly as a way of distinguishing their products from those of another company,” says Davidson.
The 12 designers whose work is featured on the stamps heavily influenced the look of everyday life in the 20th century. Some of the more familiar designs on the stamps are boldly colored Fiesta dinnerware from 1936 by Frederick Hurten Rhead and the 1961 IBM “Selectric” typewriter by Eliot Noyes. Davidson hopes that the stamps will make people aware of design and how it impacts their lives.
If you like the stamps, there are related artifacts within the Cooper-Hewitt’s collection. For instance, the museum has a pitcher and other examples of Rhead’s Fiesta line; cameras designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, who collaborated with the Eastman Kodak Company; dinnerware designed by Raymond Loewy for the 1976 Concorde airliner; drawings and examples of flatware designed by Russel Wright; and drawings for John Deere tractors and models of Bell telephones by Henry Dreyfuss. The Cooper-Hewitt also holds the archives of both Henry Dreyfuss and Donald Deskey.
The Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps are on sale now at local post offices and online at usps.com.