April 3, 2013
Prior to 1849, there was no such thing as a “normal chess set.” At least not like we think of it today. Over the centuries that chess had been played, innumerable varieties of sets of pieces were created, with regional differences in designation and appearance. As the game proliferated throughout southern Europe in the early 11th century, the rules began to evolve, the movement of the pieces were formalized, and the pieces themselves were drastically transformed from their origins in 6th century India. Originally conceived of as a field of battle, the symbolic meaning of the game changed as it gained popularity in Europe, and the pieces became stand-ins for a royal court instead of an army. Thus, the original chessmen, known as counselor, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, became the queen, pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. By the 19th century, chess clubs and competitions began to appear all around the world, it became necessary to use a standardized set that would enable players from different cultures to compete without getting confused.
In 1849, that challenge would be met by the “Staunton” Chess Set.
The Staunton chess pieces are the ones we know and love today, the ones we simply think of as chess pieces. Prior to its invention, there were a wide variety of popular styles in England, such as The St George, The English Barleycorn, and the Northern Upright. To say nothing of the regional and cultural variations. But the Staunton quickly would surpass them all. Howard Staunton was a chess authority who organized many tournaments and clubs in London, and was widely considered to be one of the best players in the world. Despite its name, the iconic set was not designed by Howard Staunton.
According to the most widely told origin story, the Staunton set was designed by architect Nathan Cook, who looked at a variety of popular chess sets and distilled their common traits while also, more importantly, looking at the city around him. Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture had been influenced by a renewed interest in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, which captured the popular imagination after the rediscovery of Pompeii in the 18th century. The work of architects like Christopher Wren, William Chambers, John Soane, and many others inspired the column-like, tripartite division of king, queen, and bishop. A row of Staunton pawns evokes Italianate balustrades enclosing of stairways and balconies.
And the knight, the most intricate and distinct piece of any chess set, is unique in that it’s the only piece that is not an abstracted representation of a designation; it’s a realistically carved horse head. The Staunton Knight was likely inspired by a sculpture on the east pediment of the Parthenon depicting horses drawing the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess. Selene’s horse is part of a collection of sculptures controversially removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, during his tenure as ambassador to the Ottoman court. Known as the “Elgin Marbles,” these sculptures were donated to the British Museum in 1816 and were enormously popular with a British public that was growing increasingly interested in classical antiquities. According to the British Museum, Selene’s horse “is perhaps the most famous and best loved of all the sculptures of the Parthenon. It captures the very essence of the stress felt by a beast that has spent the night drawing the chariot of the Moon across the sky….the horse pins back its ears, the jaw gapes, the nostrils flare, the eyes bulge, veins stand out and the flesh seems spare and taut over the flat plate of the cheek bone.” Now you know why the knights in your chess sets always look like they’re screaming in agony.
Staunton appreciated the simplicity and legibility of Cook’s design, and allowed Cook to use of his name in marketing the new pieces, which were first offered to the public in 1849 by purveyors John Jaques of London. On the same day the new pieces hit shelves across London, an advertisement in the Illustrated London News celebrated the new set as “the Staunton Chessmen”:
“A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. Staunton….The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. Staunton’s pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.”
Now, there’s some confusion about the design of the first Staunton set because Nathaniel Cook also happened to be the brother-in law of John Jaques, as well as the editor of of the News– a paper that counted Staunton among its contributors. The three men were definitely in cahoots, and some speculate that Cook was not actually the designer but was merely an agent acting on behalf of Jaques, who was looking to increase his profits by creating a cheaper, more efficient design that appealed to a variety of players and had the blessing of the most famous chess player in London. Though the design is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Mr. Staunton, he provided only the initial endorsement and functioned as a sort of spokesman, passionately advocating the set in public. The design was a huge success. The simple, largely unadorned forms of the Staunton set made it relatively cheap and easy to produce, and instantly comprehensible. Since the 1920s, the Staunton set has been required by worldwide chess organizations.
From that original set advertised in the pages of the Illustrated London News, hundreds of different versions of the have emerged. While some variation is tolerated, there are several key distinguishing characteristics that define a set as a Staunton: the king is topped with a cross and, as the the tallest piece, serves as a metric for the height of the others; the queen is topped by a crown and ball; the bishop has a split top; the knight is a horse head; the rook is a squat castle turret.”
Recently, the Staunton set got a makeover. The new piece designs are part of an earlier project by noted design conultancy Pentagram, the rebranding of World Chess, an organization that aims to bring chess back to a level of popularity it enjoyed during the heyday of Bobby Fischer. Other than coming up with a new brand and identity for chess, Pentagram also designed a new tv-friendly competitive playing environment and an interactive website that lets fans follow games live online via “chesscasting”.
Daniel Weil, partner of Pentagram, reinterpreted the classic Staunton set for the 2013 World Chess Candidates Tournament in London. Weil says that to begin the project he had to “unravel the rationale behind the original set.” This meant looking back to the pieces’ origins in Neoclassical architecture. Following the lead of Cook (or Jaques), Weil also looked to the Parthenon. As part of his subtle redesign, Weil resized the set so that when the eight primary pieces are lined up at the beginning of play, their angle reflects the pitch of the Pantheon’s pediment. Weil also streamlined the pieces somewhat, returning a precision and thoughtfulness to the Staunton set that, in his view, had been lost in many of the Staunton variations created over the last 160 years. The design also reflects the relative value of each piece according to tournament rules; the more a piece is worth, the wider the base. The new Staunton pieces were also designed to accommodate different styles of play, such as the grips that Weil ostentatiously refers to as the “north hold” and the more theatrical “south hold”. The high-quality set debuted in tournament play this year and is now also available to the public. Weill told Design Week, “When chess started to become popular in the 19th century it became a social showcase, so everyone had a set on show. I wanted to make an object of quality so that people could also show it off.”
Inspired by the Neoclassical architecture of Victorian London and a very modern need for standardization and mass production, the Staunton chessmen helped popularize the game and quickly became the world standard. The new Staunton pieces by Daniel Weil reinforces this architectural history of the original pieces while respecting their timeless design.
The House of Staunton; “Daniel Weil redesigns the chess set,” Design Week; “The History of the Staunton Chessmen” and “The Staunton Legacy,” Staunton Chess Sets; “The Staunton Chess Pattern,” ChessUSA; Henry A. Davidson, A Short History of Chess (Random House Digital, 2010); Pentagram
March 22, 2013
It’s been five years since the Make It Right organization broke ground on their first house in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood in New Orleans, an area that was completely devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The non-profit was formed in 2007 with the optimistic and ambitious plan to build 150 sustainable homes for returning residents who were struggling to rebuild. From the very beginning it was a high-profile project, partially because of the 21 renown architects commissioned to design new homes and duplexes for the area, but mostly due to the fact that it was founded by actor and architecture enthusiast Brad Pitt, whose celebrity gave the project an early boost and briefly made it a cause cêlèbre for many wealthy donors. This week, The New Republic ran a disparaging piece questioning the progress that Make It Right has made over the last five years, and MIR Executive Director Tom Darden responded with his own strongly worded rebuttal, calling The New Republic piece by Lydia DePillis a “flawed and inaccurate account” of their work. Taken together, the two articles provide some compelling insight into the nature of the project and, more broadly speaking, the benefits and detriments of large-scale building projects in disaster-stricken cities.
I should probably say up front that I lived in New Orleans for more than six years and left the city in the wake of Katrina. After leaving, I visited New Orleans frequently and would occasionally document the progress of the Make It Right development on my personal blog. The reconstruction of the Lower 9th Ward is a complex issue with both emotional and political ramifications. There is no right answer to disaster recovery and there probably never will be. That’s what makes it such a fascinating and incredibly difficult problem. Make It Right believed that good design is the solution.
But of course, good design is expensive. One of the biggest complaints levied against Make it Right by DePillis is the cost of their houses:
Make It Right has managed to build about 90 homes, at a cost of nearly $45 million, in this largely barren moonscape—viewed from the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, which connects the ward to the center city, they spread out like a field of pastel-colored UFOs….Construction on the cutting-edge designs has run into more than its share of complications, like mold plaguing walls built with untested material, and averaged upwards of $400,000 per house. Although costs have come down, Make It Right is struggling to finance the rest of the 150 homes it promised, using revenue from other projects in Newark and Kansas City to supplement its dwindling pot of Hollywood cash.
The article argues that the same amount of money could have potentially been used to accomplish much more. It’s a valid point that many people agree with, but TNR played it a little fast and loose with their numbers. Make It Right has actually spent $24 million on the construction of 90 homes. Still a significant amount, and Darden admits that yes, more conventional homes could be built more cheaply and in greater numbers. But that was never the point of Make It Right. Not exactly, anyway. The organization was formed to build high-quality homes for those that needed them the most. Darden writes:
While the academic debate about the fate of the Lower 9th Ward raged, families were already returning to the neighborhood, living in toxic FEMA trailers and planning to rebuild. These homeowners had decided to come home, but lacked the resources to rebuild in a way that would be safe and sustainable. Make It Right decided not to try to build as many houses as possible, but to design and build the best houses possible for this community.
For Make It Right, “the best” means that all houses meet stringent design guidelines that require them to meet the highest sustainability standard, LEED Platinum, incorporate new building technologies, and work with the latest construction methods and materials. Additionally, every home is structurally engineered to withstand 130 mph winds and five-foot flood surges.
Those designs are a mixed bag, and in some cases the final built project bears little resemblance to the original design. This is due to the fact that, as I understand it, the design architects relinquish control of their projects after handing over construction documents to Make it Right’s team of architects and builders. Ostensibly, this is to help keep costs down and strengthen the vernacular elements of each building to create something that feels like a true neighborhood despite the fact that it was born from disparate architectural visions. One of the most jarring examples of this is the minimalist home designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban:
From rendering to reality, something got lost in translation. The strong horizontals of Ban’s design have been lost to extraneous moldings, some profound design changes, and a less than flattering paint job. Though these may seem like small concessions, the cumulative result has destroyed the craft and elegance that was a critical element of the original design. To be fair though, these changes may have been the result of conversations between MIR and the homeowner. Collaboration is a key part of the MIR process. But if such drastic changes were necessary, I can’t help but think that Ban’s design shouldn’t have been considered in the first place. There are a few other questionable designs by architects that just don’t seem to “get” building in New Orleans, and during my last visit to Lower 9th Ward back in 2010, I couldn’t help but think that it felt more like an exhibition of experimental housing than a neighborhood. Perhaps that will change with time, natural growth, and much-needed commercial development.
To be sure though, there are also some terrific designs. While it’s exciting and press-friendly to have projects from high profile international architects like Ban, Frank Gehry, Morphosis, and David Adjaye, I think the most successful Make It Right homes have come from local architects like Waggoner & Ball and Bild design, who are familiar with the city’s traditional architecture have have created some of the most innovative houses in New Orleans by analyzing and reinterpreting classic local building types like the “shotgun house” and the “camelback.” For these firms, it’s not about always about imitating how the traditional buildings looked, but how they performed.
Design aside, perhaps The New Republic’s ire is misdirected. I can’t believe that the people behind Make It Right have anything but the best intentions for the city and are doing the best they can to fulfill their mission. However, some people have argued –and continue to argue– that they should never have been allowed to begin. The 9th Ward is one of the more remote parts of the city and due to its near total devastation, there was some speculation that the neighborhood might be abandoned completely and allowed to transform back into a natural flood plain. There was even talk that the entire city might shrink – a not implausible idea. After all, Detroit recently unveiled a 50-year plan, dubbed “Detroit Future City,” to do just that:
The Motor City hopes to manage its shrinking population with large-scale “deconstruction” to clean up blighted and sparsely occupied neighborhoods that pose a threat to public safety and an unnecessary strain on civic infrastructure. These decommissioned blocks will be replaced with parks, “ecological landscapes,” and even urban farms. The idea is that the city’s limited resources could be more efficiently employed in dense areas. It’s like a utopian plan mixed with the plot of RoboCop.
However, the City of New Orleans, for reasons that were surely both emotional and political, elected not to shrink their footprint. The strain on resources and infrastructure that may have resulted from this decision is one of the problems highlighted by The New Republic piece. This has been a constant debate since the rebuilding began. Why divert valuable resources to remote areas instead of relocating those residents to denser areas that are better served? It’s a good question. The city has only recently agreed to invest in the civic infrastructure of the Lower 9th Ward – to the tune of $110 million. This is a welcome relief for some of the city’s residents and for others a waste of funds that comes at the expense of more central neighborhoods. For Make It Right, it’s a sign that the city is finally taking the initiative to invest in more innovative infrastructure. Darden notes that “The new streets are made in part of pervious concrete that reduces runoff by absorbing water,” adding that “The city should be applauded for developing some of the most innovative infrastructure in the country, not chastised for it.” It’s interesting to think that if such innovations were to continue in the Lower 9th Ward, the neighborhood could become a sort of urban laboratory where new sustainable initiatives and materials can be tested –safely, of course– before being used in denser areas throughout the city.
The articles written by The New Republic and Make It Right offer many other salient points and counterpoints and I recommend reading them both for a comprehensive view on the issue. They make for a compelling read and include some touching anecdotes from neighborhood residents. Reconstruction at this scale is an urban issue that Make It Right started addressing with architecture.But architecture can only do so much. There are obviously larger social and political issues that are still need to be figured out. And then of course, there are events that can’t be predicted, like how the remarkable shifting demographics of Post-Katrina New Orleans will change the city. At first, Make It Right was an optimistic, symbolic kick-off to reconstruction. Five years later it’s a become a case study and a contentious point of discussion and debate. But there’s a lot of value to that as well. As I said in the introduction, there is no right answer. But that’s exactly why we need to keep talking.
February 26, 2013
Last January, air pollution reached new levels of toxicity in China. Just how bad did things get? According to the Chinese Air Quality Index (AQI), measurements of particulate matter in the air reached more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter the northeastern part of country. That probably doesn’t mean anything to you without context though, so here it is: anything above 300 is considered “hazardous” and citizens are warned that they “may experience more serious health effects.” For even more context, consider that the U.S. AQI only goes up to 500. Air quality in China is a constant concern and while the recent toxic cloud has dissipated for now, a number of businesses are creating new ways to battle pollution at every scale – from personal designer face masks to inflatable architecture.
The Shanghai office of the design firm Frog recently came up with a concept for a modern air mask that provides air quality data in real time. The AirWaves mask (top image) is an improvement to the standard air masks in both style and substance. As it filters the air breathed by the wearer, embedded particle sensors feed data to an accompanying smartphone app that connects to a larger AirWaves network, which users can access to view air data by neighborhood. Frog hopes that by “leveraging the community” they can create a more reliable and a more trustworthy source of pollution data.
The Shenzen-based company Broadwell technologies builds inflatable, pressurized domes to cover athletic fields in winter, but lately it has found new clientele for its enormous inflatable architecture: wealthy Chinese people and organizations who like to breathe. Broadwell has partnered with the California-based air filtration company UltraViolet Devices, Inc. (UVDI) to add air filtration systems to its domes so that Chinese residents can enjoy the outdoors in the safety of the indoors. The most widely publicized use of Broadwell’s new domes is their installation over the sports complex at the International School of Beijing (ISB), where the dome was fitted with a custom dual-stage particulate and activated carbon filter system designed by UVDI. The joint venture by the Broadwell and UVDI creates a space with an AQI rating below 50 – within the range of what is technically referred to as “good”.
Domes and inflatable buildings captured the imagination of architects in the 1960s and 1970s, but they have traditionally been affiliated with revolutionary artists and architects like Ant Farm, who traveled the country inflating temporary structures to hold lectures or screen movies, and Buckminster Fuller, who suggested that a two-mile diameter dome could be built over midtown Manhattan, saving residents more than 90 percent on their energy costs while also protecting them from inclement weather and nuclear attacks. Broadwell’s inflatables are decidedly less counter-cultural but are in their own way revolutionary, as they represent a new solution to temporary atmospheric control at a massive scale. These so-called “pollution domes” can cost more than a million dollars and measure over 54,000 square feet – not quite the size of a city, but unless the sources of the pollution are regulated, covering all of Beijing would only transform the Chinese city into the world’s biggest smokers’ lounge.
China is taking steps to improve its air quality but cleaning pollution takes times and governments tend to move slowly. While new policies take shape, Chinese designers and engineers will continue to affect change by doing what they do best: solving problems creatively.
February 21, 2013
There’s a housing crisis in major American cities: it’s too damn expensive to live in one. In New York City, for example, there are many more single adults –representing a whopping 33 percent of the population– living alone than there are small, affordable apartments. And there’s not much sign of things improving soon. In response to these changing demographics, The Museum of the City of New York launched the exhibition Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers to explore how design can reshape the city’s housing stock and reshape the way New Yorkers live.
Making Room was inspired by Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, a study created the strengthen the city’s economy, combat climate change, and enhance the quality of life in anticipation of a projected population increase of more than one million people by the year 2030. The report also revealed that building codes and housing laws –including density controls as well as minimum room and unit sizes– that were developed in the early twentieth century no longer reflect the reality of contemporary New York. Under current laws, apartments that measure less than 400-square-feet are illegal in most areas of the city; it’s also illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live together. As urbanites struggle to adapt to rising rents and lower wages, this is obviously ignored quite often, but nonetheless anyone with more than one roommate is technically breaking the law. This housing crisis doesn’t only affect single adults, but also immigrants, the elderly, and single-parent families.
So how do you increase density in an already incredibly dense city? You can either build taller or build smaller. Recently, city agencies have been focusing more on the latter option. Making Room presents several designs for micro-apartments (less than 400 sq-ft), “vertical neighborhoods,” and shared housing models that place a focus on communal spaces like dining areas and kitchens. The models look good, but it’s hard to imagine sharing any type of public space, particularly a kitchen, with relative strangers. All it takes is for one person to leave a few dirty dishes in the sink for the entire shared habitation to descend into chaos – or at least prompt a clutter of passive aggressive post-it notes. Inhabitants would have to be willing to embrace an entirely new lifestyle. It would almost be like living in a high-end SRO (single room occupancy), a type of low-rent hotel traditionally associated with the derelict, deviant, and just down-on-their-luck. But now those SROs come with a designer pedigree.
Though these types of spaces are new for New York, other cities have had luck with smaller apartments. I know in San Francisco, their first micro-apartment building has proven to be a success with both first-time buyers and seniors, among others. Perhaps more than anywhere else though, residents of Tokyo, Japan, are accustomed to living in smaller spaces and the culture values light over total area. Acknowledging that America’s architects have a lot to learn from their Japanese counterparts, Making Room also includes some inspiration images of hyper efficient, minimal, and tiny living spaces in Tokyo.
But the centerpiece of the exhibition is a 325-square-foot model portent created by Clei s.r.l. and Resource Furniture with architectural input from Amie Gross Architects. For those who like modern design, the unit is unquestionably beautiful. The limited space is utilized efficiently and creatively. Every piece of furniture in this model unit seems to open, slide, unfold or transform in some way to serve multiple functions: a chair unfolds into a stool, a couch becomes a bed, the flat-screen TV slides away to reveal a glass bar, and a hidden desk folds down from a wall. It’s all very efficient and it all looks pretty great. Very clean. I was somewhat dismayed to find out that the unit felt larger than my own tiny one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. But of course, it was an optimized floor plan that didn’t have to worry about natural light, weird nooks, unexpected crannies that usually come with living in a remodeled brownstone or apartment building. This full-scale room really drives the idea of the exhibition home. The 325-sq-ft room looked like a place I could live comfortably. It made the vision of micro-apartments seem a little more palatable – and a little more possible. Of course, these apartments won’t please everyone. But they’re not intended for everyone. They’re presented simply as a design solution to a growing problem for many people the city. Design can only do so much though.
They’re not always practical. And getting people to adapt will be a difficult task. But the city thinks these developments needs to happen – so much so that they’ve sponsored their own competition, adAPT, which called for developer/architect teams to design a building of micro-units for one to two people. The winning design from the team of Monadnock Development LLC, Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation, and nARCHITECTS, will actually start construction later this year.
Making Room is being called a “glimpse into the future of housing” in New York. The exhibition hopes to inspire new designs to better meet the evolving needs of a growing population and changing environmental factors. But perhaps more importantly it also aims to inspire policy changes to make these designs legal and address the larger issues surrounding the impending housing crisis is cities across America.
February 15, 2013
Drones can’t just destroy, they can create. Although the military uses of drones are widely debated, less discussed are their potentially revolutionary civilian implications. They aren’t yet widespread, but drones are being used by hobbyists, photographers, farmers, ranchers, and they may even herald an entirely new type of architecture. Last year, Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler, in collaboration with Raffaello D’Andrea, developed “Flight Assembled Architecture” – an experimental concept structure that employed small, unmanned aerial vehicles programmed to build.
Created as an installation for the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France in early 2012, the project models a speculative construction system that integrates robotics, digital fabrication, engineering, and design. Several small robotic “quadrocopters” lift 1,500 foam blocks into a complex cylindrical tower standing more than six meters high. While these miniature construction drones act, in part, according to a set of pre-programmed parameters, they also operate semi-autonomously; they’re capable of communicating with one another and independently sensing the height of the the tower to place their block accordingly. The tower is a model for a speculative future habitat that would stand more than 600 meters tall and house 30,000 inhabitants.
It makes sense to illustrate such a revolutionary concept with a skyscraper – after all, the skyscraper wouldn’t be possible if architects and engineers hadn’t embraced technologies such as steel construction and elevators. Construction drones are the bleeding edge of speculative building technology and they’re perfectly designed to create high-rise buildings in urban areas where construction can be incredibly difficult and costly. As Kohler noted in an essay for the architectural journal Log, “the conditions of aerial robotic construction are entirely liberated from the bottom-up accessibility of material, man, or [existing] machine.” These robots can create buildings without erecting scaffolding or using cranes. Drone-built designs aren’t beholden to current construction limitations and their use opens up a new possibility of architectural forms.
Of course, if Gramazio & Kohler’s model were built at full-scale in the real-world, much larger robots would have to be used, and building modules would have to be designed to fit the scale and weight of the construction drones. Shipping containers, which have been widely used in architecture for some time, seem like the most convenient option, but to use containers is to limit possibility. Thinking longer term, it’s an inefficient appropriation of existing objects and infrastructure, whereas Gramazio & Kohler drones suggest a profound rethinking of building materials and assembly. Kohler writes, “As the load capacity of flying machines is limited and the machines’ agility directly depends on their load, the development of high-performance lightweight materials systems both aerially transportable and robotically deployed will be necessary.” The architects call this a “high resolution” architecture – smaller, denser, carefully calibrated, and incredibly precise.
Though it sounds like something from a sci-fi future, there is precedent for air-lifted architecture. American polymath and pioneer of the geodesic dome, Buckminster Fuller developed the “Dymaxion House” in the 1920s – an inexpensive, mass-producible architecture that could be transported by helicopter and lowered onto a construction site, requiring only minimal service to install. Fuller also proposed a swords-to-ploughshares appropriation of military equipment and infrastructure to produce and construct his designs. “Flight Assembled Architecture” suggests that the same could be done with drones.
Buckminster Fuller and others like him may have provided spiritual inspiration for the project, but the programmability and versatility of flying robots presents a world of possibilities unimagined during Fuller’s time (actually, he probably did imagine them, the man was a genius). Construction drones could even be programmed with different “skills” or built specifically to perform a particular task; they could work in areas that aren’t fit for humans, aiding in disaster relief or other emergencies.
For better or worse, drones have captured the public imagination more than any other weapon since the nuclear bomb. Harnessing the power of the atom enabled us to level cities, but it also gave us a new way to power them. Like the Bomb, the technology behind unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to destroy or it can be used to build. Today, the architecture of drones is limited to the portable, retrofitted trailers and shipping containers used by remote pilots. Tomorrow, however, drones may serve the architect instead of the solider, and herald an entirely new style of aerial architecture.