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.
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.
June 15, 2011
The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum recently announced the winners of a contest intended to challenge students to integrate innovation into their communities. Thirteen teachers from seven schools submitted plans for products that would solve a local problem identified and chosen by the students.
“We are always impressed with what kids come up with,” said Kim Robledo-Diga, professional development manager at the Cooper-Hewitt. “Kids have a unique perspective on their community, and usually pick up on challenges that adults don’t see.”
That perspective resulted in three winning designs from schools across the country. The first-place prize of $5,000 went to the 9th-grade students of the Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School of Art + Design in San Antonio, Texas. The high school freshmen class toured a homeless shelter just around the block from their school for inspiration, and after talking with shelter volunteers and residents, came up with the idea for a carry-all bag.
The bag was designed specially for the homeless, most of whom must carry all of their possessions with them on a daily basis, said school principal Jeffrey Flores. Features of the bag included separate pockets for clean and dirty laundry, a detachable pillow and a hidden pockets for storage.
“Winning the competition gives our community, our families and our students a reassurance that there’s a bigger picture when it comes to design,” Flores said. “It’s not just drawing or designing a video game—everything around us is involved in design. And our kids are realizing this, that it’s more than just a backpack, and it’s more than just making a backpack pretty.”
Flores said the prize money will go toward manufacturing a prototype of the design, and he would love for his students to be able to return to the shelter and present the residents with a bag for their use.
A jury composed of experts ranging from retired industrial designers to professors of design, as well as representatives from competition sponsor Ford Motor Co. Fund, also selected second- and third-place winners.
The second-place prize of $3,000 was awarded to four 8th-grade students at the Shenandoah Middle School Museums Magnet School in Miami, Florida. They proposed a Pet Waste Station complete with disposal bins, signs and informational brochures intended to solve a dog waste problem on the sidewalks around their school.
The third-place winner was the Andrew Jackson Language Academy in Chicago, Ill. The entire school submitted a plan for a memorial to honor a kindergarten teacher who passed away. The design featured a garden with mosaic tiles illustrating the life cycle of a butterfly, a concept taught in kindergarten classes at the school. The academy received a $1,000 prize.
Robledo-Diga said the goal of the competition was to get kids to see that they have the ability to impact their communities through design, and that allowing them to take the lead on projects such as this usually produces results that surpass expectations.
“Everything around you is designed,” Robledo-Diga said. “Signage, the flow of street traffic, architecture and so on, are all designed by somebody. Most communities look to their local government to address local issues. This design competition shows that kids of all ages can make real change in their neighborhood using the design process.”
June 14, 2011
I started work as an intern at Smithsonian magazine last week. My first assignment was to write a blog post on ballooning. My second was to dress myself up in designer jewelry. I think, so far, that I like this job.
The only downside is that the jewelry was of the digital variety. A new Facebook application from Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City was created in honor of the museum’s exhibition, “Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels,” which explores 20th century jewelry design. It features about 350 breathtaking pieces of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry, ranging from watches to tiaras. The app allows users to choose photos from their profiles and virtually add a little (or a lot) of sparkle.
The first order of business was to try the app out for myself. Now, I’m normally not a big jewelry person. I don’t like shiny. I prefer woven bracelets to diamonds and I would choose a wooden charm over one of those Tiffany & Co. hearts any day. But I’m not going to say no when someone offers to let me try on a tiara.
So I did. I (virtually) tried on the tiara (formerly of the Princess Grace of Monaco, now of Intern Julie of Smithsonian.com), a gold necklace, some diamond earrings, a ruby brooch. Let’s be honest—I tried on almost every one of the 28 pieces of jewelry offered in my digital jewelry box. (They paid me to do this!) I didn’t take an official picture wearing any of it because I suspected the app would then post it to my wall and I would have died of embarrassment.
I did, however, consider subjecting some of my friends to such ridicule, since the app allowed me to adorn their photos with some pretty ostentatious bling. I resisted, but just barely.
My second task (even though that first one was so exhausting) was to call up the Cooper-Hewitt and interview the people who came up with the idea for the app.
“There are a lot of people nationwide who have been blogging about this show. and reading the press about it, and wanting to know more, but have not been able to visit,” said Caroline Baumann, associate director of the museum. “So this is a wonderful opportunity for those people to experience the show and have a little bit of play as well.”
Jennifer Northrop, director of communications and marketing at Cooper-Hewitt, was actually the one who came up with the idea for the app. She said that as you walk through the exhibition, you immediately want to try on every piece, and she wanted to somehow find a way to allow people to do that.
“Of course there’s no way we’re going to let people try on a Van Cleef & Arpels tiara,” Northrop said. “So the next step was really, how can we do this virtually? How can we have this experience shared by tons of people?”
By the way, Northrop said the tiara was her favorite piece too, match only by her affection for a gold and ruby necklace that resembles a very glamorous and very expensive zipper.
So although my vanity is denying you what I’m sure would be a very amusing official photo of me decked out in Van Cleef & Arpels, I will leave you with an awkward screenshot, with my poor younger brother in it because I couldn’t crop him out. Do you think the tiara’s too big? I’m not worried. I’m sure I’ll grow into it.
The “Set in Style: the Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels” exhibition is currently open and will be at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum through July 4.