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.
November 30, 2012
Saul Lilienstein was just your average kid growing up in the Bronx. He rode the train to the dazzling Times Square and music classes in Manhattan and watched Joe DiMaggio from his rooftop overlooking Yankee Stadium. If this sounds like the same sort of nostalgic yarn Woody Allen spins in Annie Hall when his character Alvy tells the audience that he grew up underneath the rollercoaster at Coney Island, Lilienstein is here to tell you it’s all true.
“He might have been born in Brooklyn but you’d be surprised how close the character was of kids from either Brooklyn or the Bronx and their utter attachment both to their boroughs and to New York as the center of their world.”
While it may not be surprising today that New Yorkers don’t suffer any insecurities about their town, the city’s fate as a global capital seemed uncertain after the stock market crash of 1929. That’s where Saul Lilienstein, a music historian, plans to pick up when he presents “New York in the Thirties: From Hard-Times Town to the World of Tomorrow” with colleague George Scheper for Smithsonian Associates. His Saturday seminar will touch on everything from Broadway to Harlem, Mayor LaGuardia to city planner Robert Moses, and explore how the city rose from the crash.
“I’ll always be a New Yorker, there’s no question about it. That’s my neighborhood,” says Lilienstein. Born in 1932 in the Bronx, Lilienstein takes what has become a familiar story of a city’s triumph–demographics, government support, new art forms and platforms–and tells it from a unique point of view, reveling in the seemingly endless potential available to any kid with a nickel.
The familiar players will all be in attendance Saturday: the New Deal, Works Progress Administration, Tin Pan Alley, Radio City Music Hall, the Cotton Club. But Lilienstein weaves personal memories into the narrative to bring New York in the 30s and 40s to life.
Like when he won an award in 1943 for selling more war bonds than any other Boy Scout in the Bronx. “I was chosen to lay the wreath at the opening of the Lou Gehrig memorial outside of Yankee Stadium,” remembers Lilienstein. “And the New York Daily News had a picture of me and it said, boy scout Saul Lilienstein lays the wreath at the Lou Gehrig memorial and then it mentioned the people standing around me: Mrs. Babe Ruth, Mrs. Lou Gehrig.” For a boy whose life revolved around riding the subway to any and every baseball game he could, the memory stands out as a favorite. “And then we all went out to lunch together to the Concourse Plaza Hotel.”
Now an opera expert, Lilienstein has a musical background that stretches back to his high school days. “I went to a high school that had six full symphony orchestras in it. I’m not exaggerating,” he says. Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art is a public school, but was the project of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who founded the school in 1936 as part of a trend of government support for artists and the arts. Factors like these seem almost impossible to imagine today, says Lilienstein, when rhetoric often villainizes anyone who benefits from the government. “But, it was a marvelous thing that generated theater and music in the city.”
He remembers taking the subway to music lessons in Manhattan where he trained with the first trombone from the New York Philharmonic, for free. Density created audiences large enough to support world renowned cultural institutions. A public transportation system open to anyone helped democratize access to those institutions. And Lilienstein’s story is just one of many from a city built to embrace the arts.
Times Square, for example, served as a sort of theater lobby for the entire city, according to Lilienstein. “It’s this place where a huge, milling crowd of people are getting something to eat and talking about what they’ve seen,” he says. “It’s not just a place where people are passing through.”
Lilienstein even goes so far as to defend the billboard funhouse that is Times Square today, saying, “Well it’s not quite the same. There are some differences: you can sit down in the middle of it now. I’m not one of those people who thinks everything gets worse, a lot of things get better.” But, Lilienstein pauses for a bit before adding, “Nothing gets better than New York in the 30s and the early 40s!”
“New York in the Thirties: From Hard Times Town to the World of Tomorrow” takes place December 1, 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Ripley Center. Purchase tickets here.
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.
September 28, 2011
For most curators, designing an exhibit is an exercise in fully educating oneself about a topic of professional interest. For Stephanie Zuni, creating her recent show was an exercise in getting to know her family. Zuni is the scholar behind the recently opened exhibition “Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century” currently on view at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum’s Heye Center in New York City.
When searching through archives for photographs for the show, Zuni came across pictures of her ancestors. A native of the Isleta Pueblo, in New Mexico, Zuni was attempting to select items that emphasized the transition that occurred in the community during the 1880s and 90s, when the tribe began losing land to the arriving railroad companies. “My grandfather was one of the leaders who went to Washington, DC when they were having the land dispute,” she says. “So in the photo, he was there, just camping out.”
Later, coming across another photo of a woman selling pottery at the pueblo train station, she knew something looked familiar. “I didn’t get to know my grandmother, but knowing that she was a potter, I could recognize that pottery in front of the train because we have that pot at home, with the same design,” she says. “Her face wasn’t showing, but I knew that had to be her.”
The new exhibition doesn’t just includes Zuni’s ancestors, but those of many Natives that still live at Isleta Pueblo, in New Mexico. “Time Exposures,” a three-part show that focuses on the enormous changes forced on the Isleta lifestyle at the start of the 20th century with the arrival of the railroad, features photography, film clips and artifacts such as kilts and pottery. In designing the exhibition, Zuni and others actively involved the community in the process. “We had a call for photographs, and we wanted people to have a part in this,” she says. “It was really a huge project for us, and it was a first for the Pueblo.”
The show covers both before and after 1881, when life in the community changed dramatically. At that time, the U.S. government allowed railroad companies to take land in the center of the Pueblo. “It really changed the way of life: crossing the railroad, and having to have more precaution over animals and their land,” says Zuni. Over time, the railroad spurred systematic changes in Isleta society. “There’s the encroachment of the new settlers, and the growth of nearby Albuquerque, and the introduction of schools and the Anglo-American economic system,” she says.
During this era, photography at the Pueblo was generally taken by outsiders. “A lot of these photographs were staged, and some of them were inappropriate, just not correct,” Zuni says. Some photos, for example, show traditional stone-throwing games with the wrong amount of stones. Many of the photos were used to convey stereotypical images of Pueblo life to tourists and people living far from New Mexico. “It’s kind of interesting to acknowledge that the photographer wasn’t always right, but that they do depict a huge portion of who we are in their eyes. These are their photographs, but we’re now telling the story,” says Zuni.
“Time Exposures” also explains the traditional cycle of the Isleta year through photography and other artifacts. “The beginning of the year is what we call our Night Fire, in December and January,” Zuni says. “Each of those events are named, and we have it depicted in the photo, and we have an interactive where you can press the button and you’ll hear the song and language and time that it reflects in the season.”
Deciding what information and which artifacts to include in the show was, at times, a sensitive process. Zuni worked with a committee of traditional Isleta leaders to make decisions during the design. “We went through a scanning process of which photographs were appropriate for people to understand who we are, as a people, and how we want those people on the outside to see us,” she says. This sort of community participation, though unusual for curating exhibitions in the Smithsonian, made possible the thorough detail and background that add such depth to the photographs on display. “The cultural committee was very involved, because of their traditional knowledge with this material,” she says.
Zuni and others hope that the traveling exhibition, which will eventually go on exhibition in a location closer to Isleta Pueblo after it closes next year in New York, will be of value to younger members of the community. “Seeing it set up, it is something that we are happy about, and something that I know will be there for future generations, whether its to find their lineage, or their kinship,” she says. “And maybe even finding their own grandparents in the photographs, as I did.”
“Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century” will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, through Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012.
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.